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Title: 'Drag' Harlan
Author: Seltzer, Charles Alden, 1875-1942
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "'Drag' Harlan" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



"DRAG" HARLAN

by

CHARLES ALDEN SELTZER

Author of
The Boss of the Lazy Y,
"Firebrand" Trevison,
The Trail Horde,
The Ranchman, Etc.

Frontispiece by P. V. E. Ivory



[Illustration: She laid her head on his shoulder, sobbing, and talking
incoherently. (Page 65)]



Grosset & Dunlap
Publishers :: New York

Made in the United States of America

Copyright
A. C. McClurg & Co.
1921

Published May, 1921

Copyrighted in Great Britain



CONTENTS

   CHAPTER                          PAGE
         I  A Desert Rider             1
        II  A Man's Reputation         9
       III  A Girl Waits              31
        IV  His Shadow Before         38
         V  A Prison                  48
        VI  Chain-Lightning           58
       VII  Single-Handed             66
      VIII  Barbara Is Puzzled        78
        IX  An Unwelcome Guest        88
         X  On Guard                  96
        XI  The Intruder             107
       XII  Barbara Sees a Light     114
      XIII  Harlan Takes Charge      119
       XIV  Shadows                  129
        XV  Linked                   142
       XVI  Deep Water               153
      XVII  Forging a Letter         159
     XVIII  Harlan Rides Alone       169
       XIX  Harlan Joins the Gang    174
        XX  Left-Handed              191
       XXI  The Black-Bearded Man    206
      XXII  A Dead Man Walks         219
     XXIII  Deveny Secedes           225
      XXIV  Kidnapped                229
       XXV  Ambushed                 238
      XXVI  Rogers Takes a Hand      242
     XXVII  A Dual Tragedy           248
    XXVIII  Converging Trails        252
      XXIX  World's End              258
       XXX  The Ultimate Treachery   263
      XXXI  Peace--and a Sunset      274



"DRAG" HARLAN

CHAPTER I

A DESERT RIDER


From out of the shimmering haze that veiled the mystic eastern space came
a big black horse bearing a rider. Swinging wide, to avoid the feathery
dust that lay at the base of a huge sand dune, the black horse loped,
making no sound, and seeming to glide forward without effort. Like a
somber, gigantic ghost the animal moved, heroic of mold, embodying the
spirit of the country, seeming to bear the sinister message of the
desert, the whispered promise of death, the lingering threat, the grim
mockery of life, and the conviction of futility.

The black horse had come far. The glossy coat of him was thickly
sprinkled with alkali dust, sifted upon him by the wind of his passage
through the desert; his black muzzle was gray with it; ropes of it matted
his mane, his forelock had become a gray-tinged wisp which he fretfully
tossed; the dust had rimmed his eyes, causing them to loom large and
wild; and as his rider pulled him to a halt on the western side of the
sand dune--where both horse and rider would not be visible on the sky
line--he drew a deep breath, shook his head vigorously, and blew a thin
stream of dust from his nostrils.

With head and ears erect, his eyes flaming his undying courage and his
contempt for distance and the burning heat that the midday sun poured
upon him, he gazed westward, snorting long breaths into his eager lungs.

The rider sat motionless upon him--rigid and alert. His gaze also went
into the west; and he blinked against the white glare of sun and
distance, squinting his eyes and scanning the featureless waste with
appraising glances.

In the breathless, dead calm of the desert there was no sound or
movement. On all sides the vast gray waste stretched, a yawning inferno
of dead, dry sand overhung with a brassy, cloudless sky in which swam the
huge ball of molten silver that for ages had ruled that baked and
shriveled land.

A score of miles westward--twoscore, perhaps--the shadowy peaks of some
mountains loomed upward into the mystic haze, with purple bases melting
into the horizon; southward were other mountains, equally distant and
mysterious; northward--so far away that they blurred in the vision--were
still other mountains. Intervening on all sides was the stretching,
soundless, aching void of desolation, carrying to the rider its lurking
threat of death, the promise of evil to come.

The man, however, seemed unperturbed. In his narrowed, squinting eyes as
he watched the desert was a gleam of comprehension, of knowledge intimate
and sympathetic. They glowed with the serene calm of confidence; and far
back in them lurked a glint of grim mockery. It was as though they
visualized the threatened dangers upon which they looked, answering the
threat with contempt.

The man was tall. His slim waist was girded by a cartridge belt which was
studded with leaden missiles for the rifle that reposed in the saddle
holster, and for the two heavy pistols that sagged at his hips. A gray
woolen shirt adorned his broad shoulders; a scarlet neckerchief at his
throat which had covered his mouth as he rode was now drooping on his
chest; and the big, wide-brimmed felt hat he wore was jammed far down
over his forehead. The well-worn leather chaps that covered his legs
could not conceal their sinewy strength, nor could the gauntleted leather
gloves on his hands hide the capable size of them.

He was a fixture of this great waste of world in whose center he sat. He
belonged to the country; he was as much a part of it as the somber
mountains, the sun-baked sand, the dead lava, and the hardy, evil-looking
cacti growth that raised its spined and mocking green above the arid
stretch. He symbolized the spirit of the country--from the slicker that
bulged at the cantle of the saddle behind him, to the capable gloved
hands that were now resting on the pommel of the saddle--he represented
the force which was destined to conquer the waste places.

For two days he had been fighting the desert; and in the serene calm of
his eyes was the identical indomitability that had been in them when he
had set forth. As he peered westward the strong lines around his mouth
relaxed, his lips opened a trifle, and a mirthless smile wreathed them.
He patted the shoulder of the black horse, and the dead dust ballooned
from the animal's coat and floated heavily downward.

"We're about halfway, Purgatory," he said aloud, his voice coming flat
and expressionless in the dead, vacuum-like silence. He did not cease to
peer westward nor to throw sharp glances north and south. He drew off a
glove and pushed his hat back, using a pocket handkerchief to brush the
dust from his face and running the fingers of the hand through his
hair--thereby producing another ballooning dust cloud which splayed
heavily downward.

"What's botherin' me is that shootin'," he went on, still speaking to the
black horse. "We sure enough heard it--didn't we?" He laughed, again
patting the black's shoulder. "An' you heard it first--as usual--with me
trailin' along about half a second behind. But we sure heard 'em, eh?"

The black horse whinnied lowly, whereupon the rider dismounted, and
stretched himself.

From a water-bag at the cantle of the saddle he poured water into his big
hat, watching sympathetically while the big horse drank. Some few drops
that still remained in the hat after the horse had finished he playfully
shook on the animal's head, smiling widely at the whinny of delight that
greeted the action. He merely wet his own lips from the water-bag. Then
for an instant, after replacing the bag, he stood at the black's
shoulder, his face serious.

"We'll hit the Kelso water-hole about sundown, I reckon, Purgatory," he
said. "That's certain. There's only one thing can stop us--that shootin'.
If it's Apaches, why, I reckon there's a long dry spell ahead of us; but
if it's only Greasers----"

He grinned with grim eloquence, patted the black again, and climbed into
the saddle. Again, as before, he sat silent upon his mount, scanning the
sun-scorched waste; and then he rode forward.

An hour later, during which he loped the black horse slowly, he again
drew the animal to a halt and gazed around him, frowning, his eyes
gleaming with a savage intolerance.

The shooting he had heard some time previous to his appearance at the
base of the big sand dune had not been done by Indians. He was almost
convinced of that now. Or, if Indians had done the shooting, they had not
yet observed him. The fact that he had seen no smoke signals proved that.

Still, there was the deep silence on every hand to bring doubt into his
mind; and he knew that Indians--especially Apaches--were tricky,
sometimes foregoing the smoke signals to lie in ambush. And very
likely--if they had seen him coming--they were doing that very thing:
waiting for him to ride into the trap they had prepared. He had not been
able to locate the point from which the reports had come. It had seemed
to him that they had come from a point directly westward; but he could
not be sure, for he had seen no smoke.

He talked no more to the horse, sitting rigidly in the saddle, erect, his
head bent a little forward, his chin thrusting, his lips curving with a
bitterly savage snarl. He felt the presence of living things with him in
the desert; a presentiment had gripped him--a conviction that living men
were close and hostile.

Reaching downward, he drew the rifle from the saddle holster and examined
its mechanism. Placing it across his knee, he drew out his heavy pistols,
one after another, slowly twirling the cylinders. He replaced the
pistols, making sure that the holster flaps were out of the way so that
they would not catch or drag at the weapons when he wanted to use
them--and with the rifle resting across his legs near the saddle horn, he
rode slowly forward.

He swung wide of even the small sand dunes as he passed them, and he kept
a vigilant eye upon the dead rocks that dotted the level at infrequent
intervals. Even the cactus clumps received flattering attention; and the
little stretches of greasewood that came within range of his vision were
examined closely.

At the end of half an hour he had seen nothing unusual. Here and there he
had noticed a rattler lurking in the shade of a rock or partly concealed
under the thorny blade of a sprawling cactus; and he had seen a sage hen
nestling in the hot sand. But these were fixtures--as was also the
Mexican eagle that winged its slow way in mile-wide circles in the
glaring, heat-pulsing sky.

The rider again halted the black horse. The presentiment of evil had
grown upon him, and he twisted around in the saddle, sweeping the
desolate vast level with cold, alert, puzzled eyes.

There was no object near him behind which an enemy might lie concealed;
the gray floor of the desert within many hundred miles of him was smooth
and flat and obstructionless. Far away, half a mile, perhaps, he saw a
thrusting knob of rock, with some cactus fringing it. From where he sat
in the saddle it seemed that the rock might be the peak of a mountain
reaching upward out of the sea of sand and desert waste--but it was
barren on sides and top, and would afford no concealment for an enemy,
except at its base. And even the base was not large enough to conceal
more than a few men.

The rider gazed long at the rock, but could detect no sign of movement
near it. He had turned from it, to look again into the western distance,
when Purgatory whinnied lowly.

Flashing around in the saddle, the rider again faced the rock. And he saw
movement there now. The distance was great, but the clarity of the
atmosphere brought a moving object distinctly into his vision. The object
was a man, and, like a huge fly, he was crawling rapidly up the sloping
side of the rock, toward its peak, which flattened abruptly at the
summit.

The man bore a rifle. The rider could see it dragging from the man's
hand; and in a flash the rider was out of the saddle, throwing himself
flat behind a low ridge of sand, his own rifle coming to a rest on a
small boulder as he trained its muzzle upon the man, who by this time had
reached the summit of the rocks in the distance. The rider waited,
nursing the stock of the rifle, his eyes blazing, while Purgatory,
seemingly aware of an impending tragedy, moved slowly away as though
understanding that he must not expose himself.

The rider waited, anticipating the bullet that would presently whine
toward him. And then he heard the report of the man's rifle, saw that the
smoke streak had been directed downward, as though the man on the summit
of the rock were shooting at something below him.

The rider had been pressing the trigger of his own weapon when he saw the
smoke streak. He withheld his fire when he divined that the man was not
shooting at him; and when he saw the man on the rock shoot again--downward
once more--the rider frowned with embarrassment.

"Don't even know I'm here!" he mused. "An' me gettin' ready to salivate
him!"

He got to his knees and watched, curiosity gleaming in his eyes. He saw
the man on the rock fire again--downward--and he noted a smoke spurt
answer the shot, coming upward from the base of the rock. The rider got
to his feet and peered intently at the rock. And now he saw another man
crouching near its base. This man, however, was not the one the man on
the summit of the rock was shooting at, for smoke streaks were issuing
from a weapon in that man's hand also, but they were horizontal streaks.

Therefore the rider divined that the two men must be shooting at another
who was on the far side of the rock; and he ran to Purgatory, speaking no
word until he had vaulted into the saddle. Then he spoke shortly.

"They're white men, Purgatory, an' they're havin' a private rukus, looks
like. But we're doin' some investigatin' just to see if the game's on the
level."



CHAPTER II

A MAN'S REPUTATION


Purgatory moved fast, but warily. The black horse seemed to have caught
something of his rider's caution. For part of the distance toward the
rock the animal traveled straight, loping rapidly, but as he neared the
little stretch of broken country that surrounded the rock he began to
sheer off, advancing with mincing steps, his ears erect, his eyes wide
and alert, snorting suspiciously.

Knowing his horse, the rider made no attempt to guide him; he knew
Purgatory was alert to any hostile movement on the part of the men who
were shooting, and that at the first sign of danger to himself or to his
rider he would do what was required of him.

The man on the summit of the rock was still shooting, though
intermittently. It seemed to the rider that the man's target must be
elusive or concealed, for the shooter's actions showed that he was
irritated. The other man, too, was still shooting. The rider noted that
he, too, seemed to be meeting with failure, for as the rider drew nearer
he heard the man curse.

Neither of the two men who were visible to the rider had seen
him--neither of them had heard the big black horse gliding over the deep
sand of the desert. The rider grinned with grim mirthlessness, edging
Purgatory around so that the two men, their backs toward him, were not
more than twenty or thirty feet away and entirely exposed to his view.

So intent were they upon their work that they did not even hear the
rider's low laugh as he brought the big black horse to a halt and sat
quietly in the saddle, a heavy pistol in each hand, watching them.

The rock, the rider noted, was a huge granite block, rotted from long
exposure to the elements, seamed and scarred and cracked. The action of
the eternally moving sand had worn an irregular-shaped concave into its
southern wall, so that the summit overhung the side. The man on the
summit was lying flat on his stomach, leaning far over, still shooting
downward. The other man, who was standing at the base, was flattened
against it, facing the concave side, shooting occasionally, and cursing
volubly.

The rider was curious. Glancing sidelong, southward, he saw two horses
not more than a hundred yards away. They were in a depression, behind a
sand ridge, which accounted for the fact that the rider had not seen them
before.

Sight of the horses brought a widening grin to the rider's face. He had
thought, at first, that the two men were shooting at another man,
concealed behind the rock; but the fact that there were only two horses
indicated that he had been in error. No man would be foolhardy enough to
attempt to cross the desert on foot, and unless a man were a friend he
would not be carried upon another man's horse. Therefore, it seemed to be
evident that the target at which the men were shooting was not another
man.

And now, convinced that the men had cornered an animal of some kind, and
that they feared it too greatly to face it openly, the rider laughed
loudly and called to the men, his voice freighted with sarcasm.

"Scared?" he said. "Oh, don't be. If you'll back off a little an' give
him room, he'll just naturally slope, an' give you a chance to get to
your cayuses."

Both men wheeled almost at the same instant. The man at the base of the
rock snarled--after the first gasp of astonishment, baring his teeth in
hideous mirth and embarrassment; the other man, startled and caught off
balance at the sound of the rider's voice, slipped, tried to catch
himself, failed, and tumbled awkwardly down, scrambling and cursing, to
the sand within a few feet of the rider.

Sitting in the sand at the base of the rock, the man who had fallen also
snarled as he sat, looking at the rider.

Neither of the two men moved after the involuntary muscular action that
had resulted from their astonishment. The man at the base of the rock
stood in the position in which he had found himself when he had wheeled.

The pistol in his right hand was held close to his side, the muzzle
directed at the rider.

But a change was coming over the man's face. The color was slowly going
out of it, the lips were loosening as his jaws dropped, his body began to
sag, and his eyes began to widen with fear, stark and naked. At length,
the rider now watching him with a gaze in which there began to glow
recognition and contempt, the man dropped his hands to his sides and
leaned against the rock.

"'Drag' Harlan!" he muttered hoarsely.

The rider watched, his eyes glittering coldly, his lips twisting in a
crooked sneer. Amusement was his dominating emotion, but there was hate
in his gaze, mingling with a malignant joy and triumph. The pistols in
his hands became steady as his wrist muscles stiffened; and he watched
the two men warily, apparently looking straight at the standing man, but
seeing the sitting man also.

And now a silence fell--a strained, premonitory silence that had in it a
hint of imminent tragedy. The sitting man stiffened, divining the promise
of violence; the standing man shrank back a little and looked downward at
the pistol in his right hand.

The rider saw the glance and laughed lowly.

"Keep her right where she is, Dolver," he warned. "You lift her one
little wee lift, an' I bore you plumb in the brain-box. Sort of
flabbergasted, eh? Didn't expect to run into me again so soon?"

He laughed as the other cringed, his face dead white, his eyes fixed on
the rider with a sort of dread fascination.

"Dolver, didn't you know when you got my little partner, Davey Langan,
that I'd be comin' for you?" said the rider in a slow, drawling whisper.
"In the back you got him, not givin' him a chance. You're gettin' yours
now. I'm givin' you a chance to take it like a man--standin', with your
face to me. Lift her now--damn you!"

There was no change in his expression as he watched the man he had called
Dolver. There came no change in the cold, steady gleam of his eyes as he
saw the man stiffen and swing the muzzle of his pistol upward with a
quick, jerky motion. But he sneered as with the movement he sent a bullet
into the man's chest; his lips curving with slight irony when Dolver's
gun went off, the bullet throwing up sand at Purgatory's forehoofs.

His eyes grew hard as he saw Dolver stagger, drop his pistol, and clutch
at his chest; and he watched with seeming indifference as the man slowly
sank to his knees and stretched out, face down, in the dust at the base
of the rock.

His lips were stiff with bitter rage, however, as he faced the other man,
who had not moved.

"Get up on your hind legs, you yellow coyote!" he commanded.

For an instant it seemed that the other man was to share the fate of the
first. The man seemed to think so, too, for he got up trembling, his
hands outstretched along the rock, the fingers outspread and twitching
from the paralysis of fear that had seized him.

"Shoot your gab off quick!" commanded the rider. "Who are you?"

"I'm Laskar," the man muttered.

"Where you from?"

"Lamo."

The rider's eyes quickened. "Where did you meet up with that scum?" He
indicated Dolver.

"In town."

"Lamo?"

The man nodded.

"How long ago?" asked the rider.

"'Bout a week."

The man's voice was hoarse; he seemed reluctant to talk more, and he cast
furtive, dreading glances toward the base of the rock where Dolver had
stood before the rider had surprised the men.

Watching the man narrowly, the rider noted his nervous glance, and his
shrinking, dreading manner. Harlan's eyes gleamed with suspicion, and in
a flash he was off the black and standing before Laskar, forbidding and
menacing.

"Take off your gun-belt an' chuck it under my horse!" he directed
sharply. "There's somethin' goin' on here that ain't been mentioned. I'm
findin' out what it is."

He watched while the man unbuckled his cartridge belt and threw it--the
pistol still in the holster--into the sand at Purgatory's hoofs. Then he
stepped to the man, sheathed one of his pistols, and ran the free hand
over the other's clothing in search of other weapons. Finding none, he
stooped and took up Dolver's pistol and rifle that had fallen from the
man's hands when he had tumbled off the rock, throwing them near where
the cartridge belt had fallen.

"You freeze there while I take a look around this rock!" he commanded,
with a cold look at the man.

Half a dozen steps took him around the base of the rock. He went boldly,
though his muscles were tensed and his eyes alert for surprises. But he
had not taken a dozen steps in all when he halted and stiffened, his lips
setting into straight, hard lines.

For, stretched out on his left side in the sand close to the base of the
rock--under the flattened summit which had afforded him protection from
the bullets the man with the rifle had been sending at him--was a man.

The man was apparently about fifty, with a seamed, pain-lined face. His
beard was stained with dust, his hair was gray with it; his clothing
looked as though he had been dragged through it. He was hatless, and one
of his boots was off. The foot had been bandaged with a handkerchief, and
through the handkerchief the dark stains of a wound appeared.

The man's shirt was open in front; and the rider saw that another wound
gaped in his chest, near the heart. The man had evidently made some
attempt to care for that wound, too, for a piece of cloth from his shirt
had been cut away, to permit him to get at the wound easily.

The man's left side seemed to be helpless, for the arm was twisted
queerly, the palm of the hand turned limply upward; but when the rider
came upon him the man was trying to tuck a folded paper into one of the
cylinders of a pistol.

He had laid the weapon in the sand, and with his right hand was working
with the cylinder and the paper. When he saw the rider he sneered and
ceased working with the pistol, looking up into the rider's face, his
eyes glowing with defiance.

"No chance for that even, eh?" he said, glancing at the paper and the
pistol. "Things is goin' plumb wrong!"

He sagged back, resting his weight on the right elbow, and looked
steadily at the rider--the look of a wounded animal defying his pursuers.

"Get goin'!" he jeered. "Do your damnedest! I heard that sneak, Dolver,
yappin' to you. You're 'Drag' Harlan--gun-fighter, outlaw, killer! I've
heard of you," he went on as he saw Harlan scowl and stiffen. "Your
reputation has got all over. I reckon you're in the game to salivate me."

Harlan sheathed his gun.

"You're talkin' extravagant, mister man." And now he permitted a cold
smile to wreathe his lips. "If it'll do you any good to know," he added,
"I've just put Dolver out of business."

"I heard that, too," declared the man, laughing bitterly. "I heard you
tellin' Dolver. He killed your partner--or somethin'. That's personal,
an' I ain't interested. Get goin'--the sooner the better. If you'd hand
it to me right now, I'd be much obliged to you; for I'm goin' fast. This
hole in my chest--which I got last night while I was sleepin'--will do
the business without any help from you."

After a pause for breath, the man began to speak again, railing at his
would-be murderers. He was talking ramblingly when there came a sound
from the opposite side of the rock--a grunt, a curse, and, almost
instantly, a shriek.

The wounded man raised himself and threw a glance of startled inquiry at
Harlan: "What's that?"

Harlan watched the man steadily.

"I reckon that'll be that man Laskar," he said slowly. "I lifted his gun
an' his rifle, an' Dolver's gun, an' throwed them under Purgatory--my
horse. Laskar has tried to get them, an' Purgatory's raised some
objection."

He stepped back and peered around the rock. Laskar was lying in the sand
near the base of the rock, doubled up and groaning loudly, while
Purgatory, his nostrils distended, his eyes ablaze, was standing over the
weapons that lay in the sand, watching the groaning man malignantly.

Harlan returned to the wounded man, to find that he had collapsed and was
breathing heavily.

For some minutes Harlan stood, looking down at him; then he knelt in the
sand beside him and lifted his head. The man's eyes were closed, and
Harlan laid his head down again and examined the wound in his chest.

He shook his head as he got up, went to Purgatory, and got some water,
which he used to wipe away the dust and blood which had become matted
over the wound. He shook his head again after bathing the wound. The
wound meant death for the man within a short time. Yet Harlan forced some
water into the half-open mouth and bathed the man's face with it.

For a long time after Harlan ceased to work with him the man lay in a
stupor-like silence, limp and motionless, though his eyes opened
occasionally, and by the light in them Harlan knew the man was aware of
what he had been doing.

The sun was going now; it had become a golden, blazing ball which was
sinking over the peaks of some distant mountains, its fiery rays stabbing
the pale azure of the sky with brilliantly glowing shafts that threw off
ever-changing seas of color that blended together in perfect harmony.

Harlan alternately watched the wounded man and Laskar.

Laskar was still groaning, and finally Harlan walked to him and pushed
him with a contemptuous foot.

"Get up, you sneak!" he ordered. And Laskar, groaning, holding his
chest--where Purgatory's hoofs had struck him--staggered to his feet and
looked with piteously pleading eyes at the big man who stood near him,
unmoved by the spectacle of suffering he presented.

And when he found that Harlan gave him no sympathy, he cursed horribly.
This drew a cold threat from Harlan.

"Shut your rank mouth or I'll turn Purgatory loose on you--again. Lookin'
for sympathy, eh? How much sympathy did you give that hombre who's
cashin' in behind the rocks? None--damn you!"

It was the first flash of feeling Harlan had exhibited, and Laskar shrank
from him in terror.

But Harlan followed him, grasping him by a shoulder and gripping it with
iron fingers, so that Laskar screamed with pain.

"Who is that man?" Harlan motioned toward the rock.

"Lane Morgan. He owns the Rancho Seco--about forty miles south of Lamo,"
returned Laskar after a long look into Harlan's eyes.

"Who set you guys onto him--what you wantin' him for?"

"I don't know," whined Laskar. "Day before yesterday Dolver an' me meets
up in Lamo, an' Dolver asks me to help him give Morgan his pass-out
checks on the ride over to Pardo--which Morgan's intendin' to make. I
ain't got any love for Morgan, an' so I took Dolver up."

"You're a liar!"

Harlan's fingers were sinking into Laskar's shoulder again, and once more
the man screamed with pain and impotent fury.

"I swear--" began Laskar.

Harlan's grin was bitterly contemptuous. He placed the other hand on
Laskar's shoulder and forced the man to look into his eyes.

"You're a liar, but I'm lettin' you off. You're a sneak with Greaser
blood in you. I don't ever want to see you again. I'm goin' to Lamo--soon
as this man Morgan cashes in. I'll be there some time tomorrow. Lamo
wouldn't please me none if I was to find you there when I ride in. You
slope, now--an' keep on hittin' the breeze until there ain't no more of
it. I'd blow you apart if this man Morgan was anything to me. But it
ain't my game unless I see you again."

He watched until Laskar, still holding his chest, walked to where the two
horses were concealed, and mounted one of them. When Laskar, leaning over
the pommel of the saddle, had grown dim in the haze that was settling
over the desert, Harlan scowled and returned to the wounded man.

To his astonishment, Morgan was conscious--and a cold calmness seemed to
have come over him. His eyes were filled with a light that told of
complete knowledge and resignation. He half smiled as Harlan knelt beside
him.

"I'm about due, I reckon," he said. "I heard you talkin' to the man you
just let get away. It don't make any difference--about _him_. I reckon he
was just a tool, anyway. There's someone behind this bigger than Dolver
an' that man Laskar. He didn't tell you?"

Harlan shook his head negatively, watching the other intently.

"I didn't reckon he would," said Morgan. "But there's _somebody_." He
gazed long into Harlan's face, and the latter gazed steadily back at him.
He seemed to be searching Harlan's face for signs of character.

Harlan stood the probing glance well--so that at last Morgan smiled,
saying slowly: "It's funny--damned funny. About faces, I mean. Your
reputation--it's bad. I've been hearin' about you for a couple of years
now. An' I've been lookin' at you an' tryin' to make myself say, 'Yes,
he's the kind of a guy which would do the things they say he's done.'

"I can't make myself say it; I can't even make myself think it. Either
you're a mighty good actor, or you're the worst-judged man I ever met.
Which is it?"

"Mostly all of us get reputations we don't deserve," said Harlan lowly.

Morgan's eyes gleamed with satisfaction. "Meanin' that you don't deserve
yours?" he said.

"I reckon there's been a heap of lyin' goin' on about me."

For a long time Morgan watched the other, studying him. The long twilight
of the desert descended and found them--Morgan staring at Harlan; the
latter enduring the gaze--for he knew that the end would not long be
delayed.

At last Morgan sighed.

"Well," he said, "I've got to take a chance on you. An', somehow, it
seems to me that I ain't takin' much of a chance, either. For a man
that's supposed to be the hell-raisin' outlaw that folks say you are,
you've got the straightest eyes I ever seen. I've seen killers--an'
outlaws, an' gun-fighters, an' I never seen one that could look at a man
like you've looked at me. Harlan," he went on slowly, "I'm goin' to tell
you about some gold I've hid--a hundred thousand dollars!"

Keenly, suspicion lurking deep in his eyes, his mouth half open,
seemingly ready to snap shut the instant he detected greed or cupidity in
Harlan's eyes, he watched the latter.

It seemed that he expected Harlan to betray a lust for the gold he had
mentioned; and he was ready to close his lips and to die with his secret.
And when he saw that apparently Harlan was unmoved, that he betrayed,
seemingly, not the slightest interest, that even his eyelids did not
flicker at his words, nor his face change color--Morgan drew a tremulous
sigh.

"You've got me guessin'," he confessed weakly. "I don't know whether
you're a devil or a saint."

"I ain't claimin' nothin'," said Harlan. "An' I ain't carin' a damn about
your gold. I'd a heap rather you wouldn't mention it. More than one man
has busted his character chasin' that rainbow."

"You ain't interested?" demanded Morgan.

"Not none."

Morgan's eyes glowed with an eager light. For now that Harlan betrayed
lack of interest, Morgan was convinced--almost--that the man's reputation
for committing evil deeds had been exaggerated.

"You've got to be interested," he declared, lifting himself on his good
arm and leaning toward Harlan. "It ain't the gold that is botherin' me so
much, anyway--it's my daughter.

"It's all my own fault, too," he went on when he saw Harlan's eyes
quicken. "I've felt all along that somethin' was wrong, but I didn't have
sense enough to look into it. An' now, trustin' folks so much, an' not
payin' strict attention to what was goin' on around me, I've got to the
point where I've got to put everything into the hands of a man I never
saw before--an outlaw."

"There ain't nobody crowdin' you to put anything into his hands," sneered
Harlan. "I ain't a heap anxious to go around buttin' into trouble for
you. Keep your yap shut, an' die like a man!"

Morgan laughed, almost triumphantly. "I'll do my dyin' like a man, all
right--don't be afraid of that. You want to hear what I've got to tell
you?"

"I've got to listen. Shoot!"

"There's a gang of outlaws operatin' in the Lamo country. Luke Deveny is
the chief. It's generally known that Deveny's the boss, but he keeps his
tracks pretty well covered, an' Sheriff Gage ain't been able to get
anything on him. Likely Gage is scared of him, anyway.

"Anyway, Gage don't do nothin'. Deveny's a bad man with a gun; there
ain't his equal in the Territory. He's got a fellow that runs with
him--Strom Rogers--who's almost as good as he is with a gun. They're holy
terrors; they've got the cattlemen for two hundred miles around eatin'
out of their hands. They're roarin', rippin' devils!

"There ain't no man knows how big their gang is--seems like half the
people in the Lamo country must belong to it. There's spies all around;
there ain't a thing done that the outlaws don't seem to know of it. They
drive stock off right in front of the eyes of the owners; they rob the
banks in the country; they drink an' kill an' riot without anyone
interferin'.

"There ain't anyone knows where their hang-out is--no one seems to know
anything about them, except that they're on hand when there's any
devilment to be done.

"I've got to talk fast, for I ain't got long. I've never had any trouble
with Deveny or Rogers, or any of the rest of them, because I've always
tended to my own business. I've seen the thing gettin' worse an' worse,
though; an' I ought to have got out of there when I had a chance. Lately
there ain't been no chance. They watch me like a hawk. I can't trust my
men. The Rancho Seco is a mighty big place, an' I've got thirty men
workin' for me. But I can't trust a damned one of them.

"About a year ago I found some gold in the Cisco Mountains near the
ranch. It was nugget gold--only a pocket. I packed it home, lettin'
nobody see me doin' it; an' I got it all hid in the house, except the
last batch, before anybody knowed anything about it. Then, comin' home
with the last of it, the damned bottom had to bust out of the bag right
near the corral gate, where Meeder Lawson, my foreman, was standin'
watchin' me.

"It turned out that he'd been watchin' me for a long time. I never liked
the cuss, but he's a good cowman, an' I had to hold onto him. When he saw
the gold droppin' out an' hittin' the ground like big hailstones, he
grinned that chessie-cat grin he's got, an' wanted to know if I was
through totin' it home.

"I wanted to know how he knowed there was more of it, an' he said he'd
been keepin' an eye on me, an' knowed there was a heap more of it
somewhere around.

"I fired him on the spot. There'd have been gunplay, but I got the drop
on him an' he had to slope. Well, the next mornin' Luke Deveny rode up to
where I was saddlin', an' told me I'd have to take Lawson back.

"I done so, for I knowed there'd be trouble with the outlaws if I didn't.
I ain't never been able to get any of that gold to the assayer. They've
been watchin' me like buzzards on a limb over some carrion. I don't get
out of their sight.

"An' now they've finally got me. I've got a little of the gold in my
pocket now--here it is." He drew out a small buckskin bag and passed it
to Harlan, who took it and held it loosely in his hands, not taking his
gaze from Morgan.

"Keep a-goin'," suggested Harlan.

"Interested, eh?" grinned Morgan; "I knowed you'd be. Well, here I am--I
didn't get to the assay office at Pardo; an' I'll never get there now."
He paused and then went on:

"Now they're after Barbara, my daughter. Deveny--an' Strom Rogers, an'
some more--all of them, I reckon. I ought to have got out long ago. But
it's too late now, I reckon.

"That damned Deveny--he's a wolf with women. Handsome as hell, with ways
that take with most any woman that meets him. An' he's as smooth an' cold
an' heartless as the devil himself. He ain't got no pity for nobody or
nothin'. An' Strom Rogers runs him a close second. An' there's more of
them almost as bad.

"They watch every trail that runs from the Rancho Seco to--to anywhere.
If I ride north there's someone watchin' me. If I ride south there's a
man on my trail. If I go east or west I run into a man or two who's
takin' interest in me. When I go to Lamo, there'll be half a dozen men
strike town about the same time.

"I can't prove they are Deveny's men--but I know it, for they're always
around. An' it's the same way with Barbara--she can't go anywhere without
Deveny, or Rogers--or some of them--ain't trailin' her.

"As I said, the sheriff can't do anything--or he won't. He looks worried
when I meet him, an' gets out of my way, for fear I'll ask him to do
somethin'.

"That's the way it stands. An' now Barbara will have to play it a lone
hand against them. Bill Morgan--that's my son--ain't home. He's
gallivantin' around the country, doin' some secret work for the governor.
Somethin' about rustlers an' outlaws. He ought to be home now, to protect
Barbara. But instead he's wastin' his time somewheres else when he ought
to be here--in Lamo--where's there's plenty of the kind of guys he's
lookin' for.

"There's only one man in the country I trust. He's John Haydon, of the
Star ranch--about fifteen miles west of the Rancho Seco. Seems to me that
Haydon's square. He's an upstandin' man of about thirty, an' he's dead
stuck on Barbara. Seems to me that if it wasn't for Haydon, Deveny, or
Lawson, or Rogers, or some of them scum would have run off with Barbara
long ago.

"You see how she shapes up?" he queried as he watched Harlan's face.

"Looks bad for Barbara," said Harlan slowly.

Morgan writhed and was silent for a time.

"Look here, Harlan," he finally said; "you're considered to be a
hell-raiser yourself, but I can see in your eyes that you ain't takin'
advantage of women. An' Harlan"--Morgan's voice quavered--"there's my
little Barbara all alone to take care of herself with that gang of wolves
around. I'm wantin' you to go to the Rancho Seco an' look around. My wife
died last year. There's mebbe two or three guys around the ranch would
stick to Barbara, but that's all. Take a look at John Haydon, an' if you
think he's on the level--an' you want to drift on--turn things over to
him."

Morgan shuddered, and was silent for a time, his lips tight-shut, his
face whitening in the dusk as he fought the pain that racked him. When he
at last spoke again his voice was so weak that Harlan had to kneel and
lean close to him to hear the low-spoken words that issued from between
his quavering lips:

"Harlan--you're white; you've got to be white--to Barbara! That paper I
was tryin' to stuff into my gun--when you come around the rock. You take
it. It'll tell you where the gold is. You'll find my will--in my desk in
my office--off the _patio_. Everything goes to Barbara. Everybody knows
that. Haydon knows it--Deveny's found it out. You can't get me back--it's
too far. Plant me here--an' tell Barbara." He laughed hollowly. "I reckon
that's all." He felt for one of Harlan's hands, found it, and gripped it
with all his remaining strength. His voice was hoarse, quavering:

"You won't refuse, Harlan? You can't refuse! Why, my little Barbara will
be all alone, man! What a damned fool I've been not to look out for her!"

Night had come, and Morgan could not see Harlan's face. But he was
conscious of the firm grip of Harlan's hands, and he laughed lowly and
thankfully.

"You'll do it--for Barbara--won't you? Say you will, man! Let me hear you
say it--now!"

"I'm givin' you my word," returned Harlan slowly. And now he leaned still
closer to the dying man and whispered long to him.

When he concluded Morgan fought hard to raise himself to a sitting
posture; he strained, dragging himself in the sand in an effort to see
Harlan's face. But the black desert night had settled over them, and all
Morgan could see of Harlan was the dim outlines of his head.

"Say it again, man! Say it again, an' light a match so's I can see you
while you're sayin' it!"

There was a pause. Then a match flared its light revealing Harlan's face,
set in serious lines.

"I wouldn't lie to you--now--Morgan," he said; "I'm goin' to the Lamo
country to bust up Deveny's gang."

Morgan stared hard at the other while the flickering light lasted with a
strained intensity that transfigured his face, suffusing it with a glow
that could not have been more eloquent with happiness had the supreme
Master of the universe drawn back the mysterious veil of life to permit
him to look upon the great secret.

When the match flickered and went out, and the darkness of the desert
reigned again, Morgan sank back with a tremulous, satisfied sigh.

"I'm goin' now," he said; "I'm goin'--knowin' God has been good to me."
He breathed fast, gaspingly. And for a moment he spoke hurriedly, as
though fearful he would not be given time to say what he wanted to say:

"Someone plugged me--last night while I was sleepin'. Shot me in the
chest--here. Didn't give me no chance. There was three of them. My fire
had gone out an' I couldn't see their faces. Likely Laskar an' Dolver was
two. The other one must have sloped. It was him shot me. Tried to knife
me, too; but I fought him, an' he broke away. It happened behind a
rock--off to the left--a red boulder.

"I grabbed at him an' caught somethin'. What it was busted. I couldn't
wait to find out what it was. I'm hopin' it's somethin' that'll help you
to find out who the man was. I ain't goin' to be mean--just when I'm
dyin'; but if you was to look for that thing, find it, an' could tell who
the man is, mebbe some day you'd find it agreeable to pay him for what he
done to me."

He became silent; no sound except his fast, labored breathing broke the
dead calm of the desert night.

"Somethin' more than the gold an' Barbara back of it all," he muttered
thickly, seeming to lapse into a state of semiconsciousness in which the
burden that was upon his mind took the form of involuntary speech:
"Somethin' big back of it--somethin' they ain't sayin' nothin' about. But
Harlan--he'll take care of--" He paused; then his voice leaped. "Why,
there's Barbara now! Why, honey, I thought--I--why----"

His voice broke, trailing off into incoherence.

After a while Harlan rose to his feet. An hour later he found the red
rock Morgan had spoken of--and with a flaming bunch of mesquite in hand
he searched the vicinity.

In a little depression caused by the heel of a boot he came upon a
glittering object, which he examined in the light of the flaming
mesquite, which he had thrown into the sand after picking up the
glittering object. Kneeling beside the dying flame he discovered that the
glittering trifle he had found was a two- or three-inch section of gold
watch chain of peculiar pattern. He tucked it into a pocket of his
trousers.

Later, he mounted Purgatory and fled into the appalling blackness,
heading westward--the big black horse loping easily.

The first streaks of dawn found Purgatory drinking deeply from the
green-streaked moisture of Kelso's water-hole. And when the sun stuck a
glowing rim over the desert's horizon, to resume his rule over the baked
and blighted land, the big black horse and his rider were traveling
steadily, the only life visible in the wide area of desolation--a moving
blot, an atom behind which was death and the eternal, whispered promise
of death.



CHAPTER III

A GIRL WAITS


Lamo, sprawling on a sun-baked plain perhaps a mile from the edge of the
desert, was one of those towns which owed its existence to the instinct
of men to foregather. It also was indebted for its existence to the greed
of a certain swarthy-faced saloon-keeper named Joel Ladron, who,
anticipating the edict of a certain town marshal of another town that
shall not be mentioned, had piled his effects into a prairie
schooner--building and goods--and had taken the south trail--which would
lead him wherever he wanted to stop.

It had chanced that he had stopped at the present site of Lamo. Ladron
saw a trail winding over the desert, vanishing into the eastern distance;
and he knew that where trails led there were sure to be thirsty men who
would be eager to look upon his wares.

Ladron's history is not interesting. As time fled to the monotonous clink
of coins over the bar he set up in the frame shack that faced the desert
trail, Ladron's importance in Lamo was divided by six.

The other dispensers had not come together; they had appeared as the
needs of the population seemed to demand--and all had flourished.

Lamo's other buildings had appeared without ostentation. There were
twenty of them. A dozen of the twenty, for one reason or another, need
receive no further mention. Of the remaining few, one was occupied by
Sheriff Gage; two others by stores; one answered as an office and
storage-room for the stage company; and still another was distinguished
by a crude sign which ran across its weather-beaten front, bearing the
legend: "Lamo Eating-House." The others were private residences.

Lamo's buildings made some pretense of aping the architecture of
buildings in other towns. The eating-house was a two-story structure,
with an outside stairway leading to its upper floor. It had a flat roof
and an adobe chimney. Its second floor had been subdivided into
lodging-rooms. Its windows were small, grimy.

Not one of Lamo's buildings knew paint. The structures, garish husks of
squalor, befouled the calm, pure atmosphere, and mocked the serene
majesty of nature.

For, beginning at the edge of "town," a contrast to the desert was
presented by nature. It was a mere step, figuratively, from that land
from which came the whisper of death, to a wild, virgin section where the
hills, the green-brown ridges, the wide sweeps of plain, and the cool
shadows of timber clumps breathed of the promise, the existence, of life.

To Barbara Morgan, seated at one of the east windows of the Lamo
Eating-House--in the second story, where she could look far out into the
desert--the contrast between the vivid color westward and the dun and
dead flatness eastward, was startling. For she knew her father had
entered the desert on his way to Pardo, on some business he had not
mentioned; and the whispered threat that the desert carried was borne to
her ears as she watched.

On a morning, two days before, Morgan had left the Rancho Seco for Pardo.
The girl had watched him go with a feeling--almost a conviction--that she
should have kept him at home. She had not mentioned to him that she had a
presentiment of evil, for she assured herself that she should have
outgrown those puerile impulses of the senses. And yet, having watched
him depart, she passed a sleepless night, and early the next morning had
saddled her horse to ride to Lamo, there to await her father's return.

It was late in the afternoon when she reached Lamo; and she had gone
directly to the Eating-House, where she had passed another restless
night--spending most of her time sitting at the window, where she was at
this minute.

Of course it was a three-day trip to Pardo, and she had no reason to
expect Morgan to return until the end of the sixth day, at the very
earliest. And yet some force sent her to the window at frequent
intervals, where she would sit, as now, her chin resting in her hands,
her eyes searching the vast waste land with an anxious light.

An attaché of the Eating-House had put her horse away--where, she did
not know; and her meals had been brought to her by a middle-aged
slattern, whose probing, suspicion-laden glances had been full of mocking
significance. She had heard the woman speak of her to other female
employees of the place--and once she had overheard the woman refer to her
as "that stuck-up Morgan heifer."

Their coarse laughter and coarser language had disgusted the girl, and
she had avoided them all as much as possible.

It was the first time she had remained overnight in the Eating-House
lodging-rooms, though she had seen the building many times during her
visits to Lamo. It wasn't what she was accustomed to at the Rancho Seco,
nor was it all that a lodging-house might be--but it provided shelter for
her while she waited.

The girl felt--as she looked--decidedly out of place in the shabby room.
Many times during her vigil she had shuddered when looking at the dirty,
threadbare ingrain carpet on the floor of the room; oftener, when her
gaze went to the one picture that adorned the unpapered walls, she shrank
back, her soul filled with repugnance.

Art, as here represented, was a cheap lithograph in vivid colors, of an
Indian--an Apache, judging from his trappings--scalping a white man. In
the foreground, beside the man, was a woman, her hair disheveled, wild
appeal in her eyes, gazing at the Indian, who was grinning at her.

A cheap bureau, unadorned, with a broken mirror swinging in a rickety
frame; one chair, and the bed in which she had tried to sleep, were the
only articles of furniture in the room.

The girl, arrayed in a neat riding habit; her hair arranged in graceful
coils; her slender, lissom figure denoting youth and vigor; the clear,
smooth skin of her face--slightly tanned--indicating health--was as
foreign to her present surroundings as life is foreign to the desert. In
her direct eyes was the glow of sturdy honesty that had instantly
antagonized the slattern who had attended her.

That glow was not so pronounced now--it was dulled by anxiety as she
looked out of the window, watching the desert light fade as twilight
came, blotting the hot sand from her sight, erasing the straight,
unfeatured horizon, and creating a black void which pulsed with mystery.

She sighed when at last she could no longer penetrate the wall of
darkness; got up and moved her chair to one of the front windows, from
where she could look down into Lamo's one street.

Lamo's lights began to flicker; from the town's buildings sounds began to
issue--multisonous, carrying the message of ribaldry unrestrained.

From a point not very far away came the hideous screeching of a fiddle,
accompanied by a discordant, monotonous wail, as of someone singing a
song unfamiliar to him; from across the street floated a medley of other
noises, above which could be heard the jangling music of a heavily
drummed piano. There came to her ears coarse oaths and the maudlin
laughter of women.

She had heard it all the night before; but tonight it seemed that
something had been added to the volume of it. And as on the night before,
she sat at the window, watching--for it was all new and strange to
her--even if unattractive. But at last the horror of it again seized her,
and she closed the window, determined to endure the increased heat.

Half an hour later, lying, fully dressed, on the bed, she heard a voice
in the hallway beyond the closed door of her room--a man's voice.

"It isn't what one might call elegant," said the voice; "but if it's the
best you've got--why, of course, it will have to do."

The girl sat straight up in bed, breathless, her face paling.

"It's Luke Deveny!" she gasped in a suffocating whisper.

The man's voice was answered by a woman's--low, mirthful. The girl in the
room could not distinguish the words. But the man spoke again--in a
whisper which carried through the thin board partition to the girl:

"Barbara Morgan is in there--eh?" he said and the girl could almost see
him nodding toward her room.

This time the girl heard the woman's voice--and her words:

"Yes she's there, the stuck-up hussy!"

The voice was that of the slattern.

The man laughed jeeringly.

"Jealous, eh?" he said. "Well, she _is_ a mighty good-looking girl, for a
fact!"

That was all. The girl heard Deveny step into a room--the room adjoining
hers; she could hear his heavy boots striking the floor as he removed
them.

For a long time the girl rested on her elbow, listening; but no further
sounds came from the room into which Deveny had gone. At last, trembling,
her face white with fear, the girl got up and stole noiselessly to the
door.

A light bolt was the door's only fastening; and the girl stood long, with
a hand upon it, considering its frailty. How easy it would be for a big
man like Deveny to force the door. One shove of his giant shoulder and
the bolt would give.

Stealthily, noiselessly, straining with every ounce of her strength, she
managed to lift the cheap bureau and carry it to the door, placing it
against the latter, barricading it. Not satisfied, she dragged the bed
over against the bureau.

Even when that had been accomplished, she was not satisfied and during
the greater part of the night she sat on the edge of the bed, listening
and watching the door. For in the days that had fled Deveny had said
certain things to her that she had not repeated to her father; he had
looked at her with a significance that no man could have understood; and
there had been a gleam in his eyes at these times which had convinced her
that behind the bland smoothness of him--back of the suave politeness of
his manner--was a primitive animalism. His suave politeness was a velvet
veil of character behind which he masked the slavering fangs of the beast
he really was.



CHAPTER IV

HIS SHADOW BEFORE


At ten o'clock the following morning, in a rear room of "Balleau's First
Chance" saloon--which was directly across the street from the Lamo
Eating-House--Luke Deveny and two other men were sitting at a card-table
with bottle and glasses between them. A window in the eastern side of the
room gave the men an unobstructed view of the desert, and for half an
hour, as they talked and drank, they looked out through the window.

A tall, muscular man with a slightly hooked nose, keen blue eyes with a
cold glint in them, black hair, and an equally black mustache which
revealed a firm-lipped mouth with curves at the corners that hinted of
cynicism, and, perhaps cruelty, was sitting at the table so that he faced
the window. His smile, as he again glanced out of the window, roved to
Deveny--who sat at his right.

"One man--an' a led horse," he said shortly. "Looks like Laskar."

Deveny--big, smooth-shaven--with black, glowing, attractive eyes that
held a glint quite as hard as that which shone in the eyes of the
speaker, looked long out of the window at a moving dot on the desert,
which seemed to be traveling toward them. Deveny had looked before; but
now he saw two dots where at other times he had seen only one. His lips
held a slight pout as he glanced at the speaker.

"You're right, Rogers," he said; "there's only one. The old fool must
have put up a fight."

Deveny filled a glass from the bottle and drank slowly. His features were
large. His nose was well shaped, with wide nostrils that hinted of a
fiery, passionate nature; his thrusting chin and the heavy neck muscles
told of strength, both mental and physical--of mental strength that was
of a tenacious character, of physical strength that would respond to any
demand of the will.

He was handsome, and yet the suggestion of ruthlessness in the atmosphere
of him--lurking behind the genial, easy-going exterior that he wore for
appearances--or because it was his nature to conceal his passions until
he desired to unleash them--was felt by those who knew him intimately. It
had been felt by Barbara Morgan.

Deveny was king of the lawless element in the Lamo section. The magnetism
of him; the arrogance, glossed over with the calm and cold politeness of
his manner; his unvarying immaculateness; the air of large and complete
confidence which marked his every action; the swiftness with which he
struck when he was aroused, or when his authority was questioned, placed
him without dissent at the head of the element that ruled the Lamo
country.

Deveny ruled, but Deveny's rule was irksome to Strom Rogers--the man to
whom Deveny had just spoken. For while Deveny drank, Rogers watched him
with covert vigilance, with a jeering gleam far back in his eyes, with a
secret envy and jealousy, with hatred and contempt and mockery.

Yet there was fear in Rogers' eyes, too--a mere glimmer of it. Yet it was
there; and when Deveny set his glass down and looked straight at Rogers,
it was that fear which brought the fawning, insincere smirk to Rogers'
lips.

"See the girl?" questioned Rogers.

Deveny laughed lowly. Apparently he did not notice the glow in Rogers'
eyes; but had Rogers looked closely he might have seen Deveny's lips
straighten as he shot a glance at the other.

"Had the room next to her last night. Heard her drag the bed in front of
the door of her room. She knew I was there, all right!" Deveny laughed
deeply. "She's wised up by this time. Lolly Kaye hates her--because
Barbara's a good-looking girl, I suppose. That's like some women. Lolly
would see Barbara roasting in hell and not give her a hand!"

"Lolly's been disappointed in love--I reckon." Rogers' laugh was hollow,
mirthless. And again Deveny shot a glance at him.

"But you didn't bother her--Barbara?" questioned Rogers in a dry, light
voice.

"No," grinned Deveny; "that time hasn't come--yet. It's coming soon. I
told Lolly to keep an eye on her; I've got Engle and Barthman and Kelmer
watching at the doors so Barbara can't light out for the Rancho Seco. She
don't get away until tomorrow. Then she goes with me to the end of Sunset
Trail. I've sent Shorty Mallo to Willow's Wells for the parson."

"Barbara know what's up?" Rogers' voice was low and throaty.

Again Deveny glanced at him--sharply.

"Hell, no!" he snapped. "It's none of her damned business--nor
anybody's!" He grinned maliciously when he saw Rogers' face whiten.

"Barbara will need a husband now," Deveny went on. "With old Morgan gone
and her brother sloped from the home ranch, she'll be kind of lonesome. I
aim to cure her of that."

He laughed, and Rogers writhed inwardly. For Rogers had long nursed a
secret hope that one day the fates might take a notion to give him the
chance that Deveny intended to seize.

But Rogers was forced to conceal his jealousy and disappointment. He
laughed mirthlessly.

"So she can't get away, eh?--she's corralled!"

"Bah!" declared Deveny; "she won't want to get away--once she knows what
I mean--that it's going to be a regular wedding. She'll raise a fuss,
most likely, to make folks believe she's unwilling, but in the end she'll
get over it."

Deveny glanced out of the window at the blot that was now closer.

"It's Laskar, all regular," he said. "He's leading a sorrel horse--Dolver's
horse. Old Morgan got Dolver--looks like, the damned old gopher! Men as
willing as Dolver are not found every day." He looked at the third man, who
had not spoken.

"Lawson," he said, "you mosey down the trail a little piece and meet
Laskar. Bring him here!"

Lawson, a thin-faced, medium-sized man with narrow shoulders, whose
distinguishing mark was a set of projecting upper teeth that kept his
mouth in a continual smirking smile, got up quickly and went out. Deveny
and Rogers, their thoughts centered upon the same person--Barbara
Morgan--sat silent, watching Lawson as he rode down the street toward the
point where the trail, crossing the broken stretch of country that
intervened, merged into the desert.

Half an hour later Laskar, holding his chest, where Purgatory had kicked
him, was sitting at the table in the rear room of the First Chance,
cursing with a fluency that he had not yielded to in many years.

"Dolver's wiped out!" he gasped hoarsely; "plugged so quick he didn't
know he was hit. A center shot--plumb in the heart; his own gun goin' off
while he was fallin'. I looked him over--after. He was croaked complete.
Then that sober-faced hyena lifts my gun--an' the rifle--an' says things
to me, which I don't try to cross him. Then he goes behind the
rock--where we was havin' it out--an' while he's gone I tries to git my
guns from under that devil-eyed cayuse of his'n.

"An' I don't succeed--noways. That black devil turns on a half-dollar an'
plants his hoofs plumb in my breast-bone. If I'd been an inch nearer, or
if he'd have kicked me a foot lower, or a foot higher, I'd be layin' out
there where Dolver is now, the coyotes an' the buzzards gnawin' at me."

Unmoved by Laskar's incoherence, Deveny calmly watched him. And now, when
Laskar paused for breath, Deveny spoke slowly:

"A _black_ horse, you said. How did a black horse get there? Old Morgan
rode a bay when he left Lamo--Balleau says."

"Did I say Morgan rode a black horse?" queried Laskar, knowledge in his
eyes that he had a thing to tell that would blanch their faces. He
grinned, still holding his chest, his glance malicious.

"Did I say a _black_ horse?" he repeated. "Did I say Morgan rode a black
horse? Morgan didn't. Morgan rode a bay--an' the Chief run it off after
he shot Morgan. But Morgan didn't die right away, an' the Chief he had to
slope, he said--an' he did--leavin' me an' Dolver to finish old Morgan.

"We was tryin' our damnedest when this guy on the black horse pops up out
of nowhere an' salivates Dolver."

"Who was it?"

This was Deveny. He was now leaning forward, a pout on his lips, watching
Laskar with an intent, glowering gaze.

"'Drag' Harlan!" shouted Laskar. His face lighted with a hideous joy as
he watched the effect of his news.

"'Drag' Harlan! Do you hear?" he went on. "'Drag' Harlan, the Pardo
'two-gun' man! He's headed toward Lamo. He bored Dolver, an' he said that
soon as Morgan cashed in he was hittin' the breeze for here!"

Lawson, the man who had gone to meet Laskar, ejaculated hoarsely, and
stood rigid, his mouth open, his eyes bulging. It was the involuntary
expression of the astonishment and fear that had seized him. Laskar
forgot the pain in his chest long enough to straighten and grin at
Lawson.

Rogers' face had changed color. He, too, had become rigid. He had been in
the act of reaching for the bottle on the table, and the hand that had
been extended had been suddenly drawn back, so that the hand was now
midway between his body and the bottle--and the fingers were clenched.
The other hand, under the table, was likewise clenched, and the muscles
of his jaws were corded. Into his eyes had come a furtive, restless
gleam, and his face had paled.

Deveny gave no visible sign of perturbation. He coolly reached out,
grasped the bottle that Rogers had been reaching for, and poured some of
the amber fluid into one of the glasses. The other men watched him
silently--all of them intent to note the tremor they expected to see.

Deveny's hand did not tremble. He noted the glances of the men--the
admiration that came into their eyes as with steady muscles he raised the
glass and drank--and he smiled with slight contempt.

"Coming here, eh?" he said evenly. "So he said that. Did he mention what
he was coming for?"

"He didn't mention," replied Laskar.

"So he downed Dolver. Did he say what for?"

"Said Dolver had shot up his partner, Davey Langan--back in Pardo. Harlan
was evenin' up."

"What do you know about Harlan?"

The question was addressed to all of them.

Rogers answered.

"He's a bad guy--all bad. He's an iceberg, an' he's got the snakiest
gun-hand of any man in the country. Draws hesitatin'-like. A man don't
know when he's goin' to uncork his smoke-wagons. I seen him put Lefty
Blandin' out. He starts for his guns, an' then kind of stops, trickin'
the other guy into goin' for his. Then, before the other guy can get his
gun to workin', Harlan's stickin' his away, an' the guy's ready for the
mourners.

"Harlan got his handle that way. He goes for his guns so slow an'
hesitatin' that he seems to drag 'em out. But some way he's always
shootin' first. An' they always let him off because it's mighty plain
that the other guy tried to draw first."

"I've heard that," said Deveny slowly. "What's his record?"

"Plays her a lone hand," returned Rogers. He watched the other steadily.

Deveny toyed with a glass as he gazed out of the window. There was a
cold, sullen gleam in his eyes when he finally looked at Laskar.

"You said Harlan told you he was coming here as soon as Morgan cashed in.
According to that, Morgan must have been hit bad."

"The Chief said he bored him plenty. An' me an' Dolver must have got him
some."

"You didn't get a chance to search Morgan?"

"No chance--he fit like a hyena; an' when he got behind that damned rock
there was no way of gettin' at him."

"Then," said Deveny, "according to what you say, Harlan will come here as
soon as Morgan dies. And when you left there Morgan was in a bad way.
Harlan is due most any time, then."

"That's the way I figger," agreed Laskar.

And now Laskar fidgeted. "I aim to be hittin' the breeze now--before
Harlan hits town. This climate is gettin' unhealthy for me. Harlan give
me notice."

"To leave town?"

It was Deveny who spoke. There was a snarl in his voice; he leaned
forward and scowled at Laskar.

Laskar nodded.

Rogers cleared his throat, and Lawson moved his feet uneasily.

Deveny's scowl faded; he grinned coldly.

"Giving orders--is he?" he snapped. "Well, we'll see." He laughed. "When
Harlan hits town it will be a sign that old Morgan's crossed the Divide.
Well, there was no witnesses to Morgan's cashing in, and one man's word
is as good as another's in this country."

"Meanin'?" questioned Rogers, noting the light in Deveny's eyes.

"Meaning that Laskar is going--right now--to whisper into Sheriff Gage's
ear that he saw our friend, 'Drag' Harlan, killing old Morgan."

Rogers got to his feet, grinning. The gleam in his eyes indicated that he
felt some relief over the prospect presented by Deveny's suggestion.

"Of course we ain't sure Harlan means to make trouble here," he told
Deveny; "but it's just as well to shove him off onto the sheriff."

The four men walked to the front door of the First Chance, after pausing
for a few minutes at the bar.

Outside, halting for an instant on the board platform in front of the
saloon, Rogers, who had been the first to emerge, started as he glanced
toward the desert, and then stood rigid, shading his hands with his eyes
against the sun that poured into his face.

"He's comin' now!" he said.

Deveny and the others also looked into the blinding glare of the
sun--likewise shading their eyes. And they saw, far out upon the vast sea
of sand--yet not so far that they could not distinguish objects--a black
horse coming steadily toward them.

Deveny was strangely silent, glowering toward the desert; Rogers folded
his arms and faced the oncoming rider and the somber-coated animal he
bestrode; Lawson scowled; and Laskar nervously estimated the distance
that stretched between himself and the steady-eyed man who had told him
certain things in a voice that had been entirely convincing.



CHAPTER V

A PRISON


Barbara Morgan had not been able to sleep except by fits and starts. A
dozen times during the night she had caught herself on the verge of
sinking into deep slumber, and each time she had got up and washed her
eyes with some water from a pitcher on the bureau, determined that she
would not take any chances of permitting Deveny to surprise her.

When the dawn came she was haggard and tired; and she got up listlessly,
combed her hair, and washed her face, and dragged away the pieces of
furniture that had formed the barricade at the door.

She felt more secure with the dawn, and when the sunlight began to stream
into the east windows she opened the door of the room, descended the
stairs, and took a short walk to the edge of town.

Returning, she saw a man arrayed in overalls, boots, a blue woolen shirt,
and broad felt hat, standing in the doorway of the stable that, she felt,
belonged to the Eating-House. Sight of the stable brought to her thoughts
of her horse--Billy--and she decided to determine if the man who had
taken charge of him had put him into the stable.

She paused before the door, directly in front of the man, who did not
move aside to permit her to enter.

She thought at first that he was not aware of her desire--until she
observed an amused light in his eyes; and then she knew that he was
purposely barring her way.

"This is the Eating-House stable, I suppose?" she inquired quietly.

"You're supposin' is a heap correct, ma'am," grinned the man.

"Well," she said, "if you will kindly step aside I shall see if my horse
is all right."

"Your horse is all right, ma'am," returned the man. "I've just fed him."

Irritated by his attitude, she spoke sharply:

"Step aside, please; I am going into the stable!"

The man grinned widely. "It's ag'in' orders, ma'am; you'll have to stay
out."

"Whose orders?"

"Deveny's. You ain't to go into the stable."

She hesitated, afflicted with a queer sensation of weakness and
indecision.

It was her fear of Deveny, she supposed, that made her feel that way,
together with the conviction that Deveny must have known that she had
been in the room next to the one he had taken, even before he had
ascended the stairs. It seemed to her that this deliberate interference
with her must be inspired by evil intentions, and for an instant panic
overtook her.

Then, yielding to the flash of anger that surged over her, she drew the
small revolver she always carried with her on her rides, and presented
it. She stepped back a little, so that the man might not strike the
weapon from her hand, and spoke shortly, commandingly to him.

"Get away from that door!"

"Shootin', ma'am?" he drawled. "Oh, don't!"

He grinned at her and calmly began to roll a cigarette, at which action
she gulped with dismay, wheeled swiftly, and walked to the stairs. She
went up proudly enough, her head held high, for she divined that the man
would be watching her. But when she entered her room her pride forsook
her, and she sank into a chair by the east window, dismayed and
frightened.

While she sat there the slatternly woman slowly opened the door and stuck
her head in. She grinned widely at Barbara.

"Goin' ridin' this mawnin', deary?"

Barbara looked at her, saw the mockery in the jealous eyes, and turned
her head again, making no reply.

"Too stuck up to talk, eh?" jibed the slattern. "Well, before you get out
of here you'll be tickled enough to shoot off your gab. Bah! You an' your
airs! If you want any grub this mawnin' you'll come down an' grab it
yourself, I'm tellin' you that."

She slammed the door, her jeering laugh penetrating the partition with
hideous resonance.

After the woman had gone Barbara got up, her lips set in resolute lines.

Once in the hall she started to walk toward the stairs, when she saw the
cowboy of the stable lounging against the rail on the platform. He saw
her at the instant she looked at him, and he grinned hugely.

"I reckon you've noticed I've sort of shifted," he said. "I keep goin'
up--gettin' higher in the world."

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"Just loafin', I reckon," grinned the other. "An' obeyin' orders," he
added instantly. "Much as I hate to disconvenience a lady, I ain't takin'
no chances on rilin' Deveny."

"Do you mean that Deveny placed you here to watch me?"

"He didn't issue no particular orders as to where I was to do my
standin'. But he was sure earnest about sayin' that you wasn't to leave
your room."

"I left it once this morning."

"My fault," he grinned. "I was sneakin' a drink in the Antler, an' you
slipped me. I'm bettin' it don't happen ag'in!"

Overcome with a cold terror that suddenly seized her, Barbara wheeled and
re-entered her room, standing for an instant at the door as she locked
it, and then walking to the chair and sinking nervelessly into it.

Somehow, she sensed the futility of further effort at escape. She was
aware of Deveny's power in the country; she knew that he ruled Lamo as he
ruled every foot of land in the section; and she was convinced that it
would be wasted effort to call for help. Even her own sex--represented by
the slattern, and most of the women in Lamo were of that type, in
character--seemed to be antagonistic toward her. It seemed to her that
they would mock her as the slattern had mocked her, should she appeal to
them.

And as for the men of Lamo, they were not to be considered. She was
certain she could not induce one of them to act contrary to Deveny's
wishes. For her father had told her about Lamo's men--how they were
slaves to the will of the man whose deeds of outlawry had made him feared
wherever men congregated; and she knew Lamo itself was a sink-hole of
iniquity where women were swallowed by the evil passions of men.

She might have appealed to Gage, the sheriff, and she thought of Gage
while she sat at the window. But Gage, her father had told her, with
disgust in his eyes, was a man of colorless personality and of little
courage--a negligible character upon whom the good people of the section,
who were pitifully few, could not depend. Her father had told her that it
was his opinion that Gage, too, was a slave to Deveny's will.

She wished now that she had not yielded to the impulse which had brought
her to Lamo; but her lips grew firm and her eyes defiant as she at last
got up and walked to one of the front windows.

Now, more vividly than ever, could she understand the significance of
Deveny's glances at her in the past; the light in his eyes had been an
expression of premeditated evil, awaiting an opportunity.

She was pale, and her hands were trembling as she placed them on the sill
of the front window and glanced down into the street, hoping that she
might see a friendly face; praying that one of the Rancho Seco men might
have come to town during the night.

But she saw no one she knew. Indeed, except for a pony standing in front
of a saloon down the street a little distance, and several others hitched
to a rail across the street, in front of the First Chance saloon, Lamo
seemed to be deserted. And a silence, deep and portentous of evil, seemed
to have settled over the town.

But as she leaned upon the sill a sound floated to her through the open
window--a man's voice, so close to her that it made her start and
stiffen. It was Deveny's voice, and it seemed to come from a point in the
street directly beneath the window.

"Did you find Gage?" it said.

Barbara leaned forward a little and looked downward. Below her, on the
narrow board-walk that ran in front of the Eating-House, were four men.
She recognized three of them--Deveny, Strom Rogers, and Meeder Lawson,
the Rancho Seco foreman.

The other man was a stranger. Evidently it was the stranger to whom
Deveny had spoken, for it was the stranger who answered.

"He's in his office now."

Deveny turned to Lawson and Rogers. "You two wait here, Laskar and myself
will do the talking to Gage." He started away with the man who had
answered him; then called back over his shoulder: "Hang around; if
there's trouble, you'll want to get in on it."

Deveny and Laskar walked down the street; the girl saw them enter the
building occupied by the sheriff.

Wondering, intensely curious--for that word "trouble" meant shooting in
the vocabulary of men of the Deveny type--Barbara drew back until she was
certain the men in the street could not see her.

When Deveny and Laskar disappeared, Strom Rogers laughed sneeringly:

"Deveny's scared of 'Drag' Harlan, I reckon. It's a cheap frame-up."

"Aw, hell," jibed the other; "you're jealous, that's all. You'd like to
see Harlan plug Deveny, eh; so's you'd have a chance with Barbara Morgan.
I'd be a heap careful, if I was you, Rogers. Deveny knows you took a
shine to Barbara Morgan. I seen him lookin' hostile at you when you was
quizzin' him in Balleau's. He's next."

"This is a free country," returned Rogers. The girl caught the malignant
note in his voice, and she leaned outward a little, trying to see his
face, while she shivered with dread.

"Yes," laughed Lawson; "a man can cash in without any excuse, usual; all
he's got to do is to cross Deveny. You're a damned fool, Strom, to go to
takin' a shine to Barbara Morgan, when Deveny wants her. He's been
waitin' for her, an' meanin' to have her, all along. He's only been
waitin' until ol' Morgan cashed in, so's he'd have a chance to take her.
Now that Morgan's dead his chance has come."

Silently, her face dead white, her eyes closed, Barbara slipped backward
and crumpled into a heap on the dirty carpet of the room.

When she again opened her eyes it was to look wildly at the open window
through which the terrible news had come. Then she dragged herself to it,
and making no sound leaned her arms on the sill and listened again, her
heart seeming to be in the clutch of icy fingers, her brain atrophied,
reeling in a chaos of incoherent, agonized impulses.

She did not know how long she had been unconscious. She saw that Rogers
and Lawson were still below, and still talking. So keen was her sense of
hearing--every nerve straining in the effort to learn more--that the
voices of the men came in through the window with a resonance that, she
felt, must be audible to every person in Lamo.

"It ain't my style, that's all. I'd meet Harlan on the level, man to man,
if he was lookin' for me. It's likely he ain't at that. I've heard, bad
as he is, that he plays square. An' if I was runnin' things I'd take a
look at him before chargin' him with killin' Lane Morgan, when the
killin' had been done by the Chief, an' Dolver, an' Laskar."

It was Strom Rogers' voice. It bore conviction with it, even though there
was passionate feeling behind it, mingled strangely with personal hatred
and jealousy.

Dumbly, Barbara clutched the window-sill. One dry, agonized sob racked
her; and then she sat on the floor, to stare vacantly at the dingy walls
of the room.

Once more she heard Rogers' voice; this time there was a note of savage
glee in it:

"There's Harlan now, just slippin' off his cayuse in front of Gage's
place. 'Drag,' eh? Well, there don't seem to be nothin' impedin' his
actions anywhere."

Prompted by the urge of a curiosity that she could not resist, Barbara
reeled to her feet, and with her hands resting on the window-sill leaned
out and looked up the street.

In front of the sheriff's office, not more than thirty or forty feet
distant, she saw a tall, well-built man standing beside the hitching rail
that fringed the board sidewalk. He had evidently just dismounted, and he
was standing at the head of a big, coal-black horse. He was in the act of
hitching the animal, and his back was toward her.

She watched breathlessly until he turned. And then she stared hard at
him, noting the steady, cold, alert eyes; the firm lips; the bigness of
him, the atmosphere of capableness that seemed to surround him; the
low-swung guns at his hips, with no flaps on the holster-tops, and the
bottoms of the holsters tied to his leather chaps with rawhide thongs.

Never had she seen a man like him. For some reason, as yet inexplicable
to her, he brought into her troubled consciousness a feeling of cold
calm, a refreshing influence that might be compared to the sweep of a
cool and unexpected breeze in the middle of a hot day.

He dominated the group of men that instantly surrounded him; and the
dominance was not of attire, for he was arrayed like the others. She saw
Deveny standing near him, and the man Laskar behind Deveny and Sheriff
Gage and several other men. And she saw Rogers and Lawson as they walked
slowly toward him.

And then a realization of her loss, of the tragedy that had descended
upon her, again assailed her; and a fury of intolerance against inaction
seized her. She could not stay in this room and suffer the hideous
uncertainty; she could not take Rogers' word that her father had been
killed. There must be some mistake. Perhaps Rogers knew she was at the
window, listening, and he had said that just to spite her. For she had
discouraged Rogers' advances as she had discouraged Deveny's.

Breathing fast, she unlocked the door and went out into the hall.

The man whom Deveny had placed to guard her was still lounging on the
stair platform, and he grinned when he saw her.

"Comin' to try ag'in?" he grinned.

She smiled--a disarming smile that brought a fatuous gleam into the man's
eyes, so that he permitted her to come close to him.

"Deveny's got damn' good judgment," he said as she halted near him. "He
knows a thoroughbred when he sees--Hell!"

The ejaculation came from his lips as Barbara leaped swiftly past him. He
threw out a futile arm, and stood for an instant, shocked into inaction
as Barbara ran down the stairs toward the street. Then the man leaped
after her, cursing. She could hear him saying: "Damn your hide! Damn your
hide!" as he came after her, his spurs jangling on the steps.



CHAPTER VI

CHAIN-LIGHTNING


Turning from Purgatory, after he had dismounted in front of the sheriff's
office, Harlan faced three men who stood just outside of the building,
watching him.

The slightly humorous smile that curved Harlan's lips might have betrayed
his reason for dismounting in front of the sheriff's office, for he had
seen Laskar standing with the two other men. But no man could have told
that he looked at Laskar directly, except Laskar himself, who would have
sworn that Harlan did not remove his gaze from him, once he had slipped
from Purgatory's back.

For Harlan's eyes told nothing. They seemed to be gazing at nothing, and
at everything. For Gage, watching the man, was certain Harlan was looking
directly at him as he grinned, and Deveny, like Laskar, was sure Harlan's
gaze was upon him. And all of them, noting one another's embarrassment,
stood silent, marveling.

And now Deveny discovered that Harlan was watching the three of them
together--a trick which is accomplished by fixing the gaze upon some
object straight in front of one; in this case it was Deveny's collar--and
then including other objects on each side of the center object.

Steady nerves and an inflexible will are required to keep the gaze
unwavering, and a complete absence of self-consciousness. Thus Deveny
knew he was standing in the presence of a man whose poise and
self-control were marvelous; and he knew, too, that Harlan would be aware
of the slightest move made by either of the three; more, he could detect
any sign of concerted action.

And concerted action was what Deveny and Laskar and the sheriff had
planned. And they had purposely dragged Laskar outside, expecting Harlan
would do just as he had done, and as his eyes warned he intended to do.

"I'm after you, Laskar," he said softly.

Laskar stiffened. He made no move, keeping his hands at his sides, where
they had been all the time that had elapsed since Harlan had dismounted.

Laskar's eyes moved quickly, with an inquiring flash in them, toward
Deveny and the sheriff. It was time for Deveny and the sheriff to
precipitate the action they had agreed upon.

But the sheriff did not move. Nor did Deveny change his position. A
queer, cold chill had come over Deveny--a vague dread, a dragging
reluctance--an indecision that startled him and made of his thoughts an
odd jumble of half-formed impulses that seemed to die before they could
become definite.

He had faced gun-fighters before, and had felt no fear of them. But
something kept drumming into his ears at this instant with irritating
insistence that this was not an ordinary man; that standing before him,
within three paces, his eyes swimming in an unfixed vacuity which
indicated preparation for violent action, was Harlan--"Drag" Harlan, the
Pardo two-gun man; Harlan, who had never been beaten in a gunfight.

Could he--Deveny--beat him? Could he, now, with "Drag" Harlan watching
the three of them, could he draw with any hope of success, with the hope
of beating the other's lightning hand on the downward flash to life or
death?

Deveny paled; he was afraid to take the chance. His eyes wavered from
Harlan's; he cast a furtive glance at the sheriff.

Harlan caught the glance, smiled mirthlessly and spoke shortly to Laskar:

"I told you to keep hittin' the breeze till there wasn't any more
breeze," he said. "I ought to have bored you out there by the red rock. I
gave you your chance. Flash your gun!"

"Harlan!"

This was Gage. His voice sounded as though it had been forced out: it was
hoarse and hollow.

Harlan did not move, nor did his eyes waver. There was feeling in them
now: intense, savage, cold. And his voice snapped.

"You're the sheriff, eh? You want to gas, I reckon. Do it quick before
this coyote goes for his gun."

The sheriff cleared his throat. "You're under arrest, Harlan, for killin'
Lane Morgan out there in the desert yesterday."

Harlan's eyes narrowed, his lips wreathed into a feline smile. But he did
not change his position.

"Who's the witness against me?"

"Laskar."

"Has he testified?"

"He's goin' to."

Harlan backed away a little. His grin was tiger-like, a yellow flame
seemed to leap in his eyes. Laskar, realizing at last that he could hope
for no assistance from Gage or Deveny, grew rigid with desperation.

Death was in front of him; he knew it. Death or a deathless fame. The
fates had willed one or the other, and he chose to take the gambler's
chance, the chance he and Dolver and the Chief had refused Lane Morgan.

Deathless fame, the respect and the admiration of every man in the
section was his if he beat "Drag" Harlan to the draw. Forever afterward,
if he beat Harlan, he would be pointed at as the man who had met the
Pardo gunman on even terms and had downed him.

He stepped out a little, away from the front of the building, edging off
from Deveny and Gage so that Harlan would have to watch in two
directions.

Lawson and Rogers, having advanced to a position within a dozen paces of
the group in front of the sheriff's office, now backed away, silent,
watchful. Other men who had been standing near were on the move
instantly. Some dove into convenient doorways, others withdrew to a
little distance down the street. But all intently watched as Laskar
showed by his actions that he intended to accept his chance.

Deveny, too, watched intently. He kept his gaze fixed upon Harlan, not
even glancing toward Laskar. For Deveny's fear had gone, now that the
dread presence had centered its attention elsewhere, and he was
determined to discover the secret of Harlan's hesitating "draw," the
curious movement that had given the man his sobriquet, "Drag." The
discovery of that secret might mean much to him in the future; it might
even mean life to him if Harlan decided to remain in the section.

Harlan had made no hostile movement as yet. He still stood where he had
stood all along, except for the slight backward step he had taken before
Laskar began to move. But he watched Laskar as the latter edged away from
the other men, and when he saw Laskar's eyes widen with the thought that
precedes action, with the gleam that reflects the command the brain
transmutes to the muscles, his right hand flashed downward toward the
hip.

With a grunt, for Harlan had almost anticipated his thoughts, Laskar's
right hand swept toward the butt of his pistol.

But Harlan's hand had come to a poise, just above the stock of his
weapon--a pause so infinitesimal that it was merely a suggestion of a
pause.

It was enough, however, to throw Laskar off his mental balance, and as he
drew his weapon he glanced at Harlan's holster.

A dozen men who watched swore afterward that Laskar drew his gun first;
that it was in his hand when Harlan's bullet struck him. But Deveny knew
better; he knew that Laskar was dead on his feet before the muzzle of his
weapon had cleared the holster, and that the shot he had fired had been
the result of involuntary muscular action; that he had pulled the trigger
after Harlan's bullet struck him, and while his gun had been loosening in
his hand.

For Deveny had seen the bullet from Laskar's gun throw up sand at
Harlan's feet after Harlan's weapon had sent its death to meet Laskar.
And Deveny had discovered the secret of Harlan's "draw." The pause was a
trick, of course, to disconcert an adversary. But the lightning flash of
Harlan's hand to his gun-butt was no trick. It was sheer rapidity, his
hand moving so fast that the eye could not follow.

And Deveny could get no pleasure from his discovery. Harlan had waited
until Laskar's fingers were wrapped around the stock of his pistol before
he had drawn his own, and therefore in the minds of those who had
witnessed the shooting, Harlan had been justified.

Sheriff Gage thought so, too. For, after Laskar's body had been carried
away, Harlan stepped to where the sheriff stood and spoke shortly:

"You wantin' me for this?"

Sheriff Gage shook his head. "I reckon everybody saw Laskar go for his
gun. There was no _call_ for him to go for his gun. If you'd have shot
him without him reachin' for it things would have been different."

Harlan said coldly, "I'm ready for that trial, now."

The sheriff's eyes glowed with some secret significance as they met
Harlan's. He was standing at a little distance from Deveny, and he
deliberately closed an eye at Harlan.

"Trial--hell!" he declared, "you've destroyed the evidence."

Harlan wheeled, to see Deveny standing near. And for an instant as their
eyes met--Harlan's level and cold, Deveny's aflame with a hostility
unmistakable--the crowd which had witnessed the shooting of Laskar again
became motionless, while a silence, portending further violence,
descended over the street.

Then Deveny abruptly wheeled and began to walk across to the First
Chance.

He had not taken many steps, however, when there were sounds of commotion
farther down the street toward the Eating-House--a man cursing and a girl
screaming.

Deveny halted and faced the point from which the sounds came, and a scowl
appeared on his face.

Harlan wheeled, also. And he saw, at a little distance down the street, a
girl running, her hair tossing in a mass around her, her eyes wild with
fright and terror. Behind her came a man, cursing as he ran.

Harlan heard Sheriff Gage curse, too--heard him say:

"That's Lane Morgan's daughter--Barbara! What in hell is she doin' here?"

The girl, not more than a dozen feet ahead of her pursuer, ran straight
toward Harlan. And when--as she drew closer and he saw that she was,
indeed, actually coming toward him--her eyes on him as though she had
singled him out as a protector--he advanced toward her, drawing one of
his guns as he went.

And, grinning as she neared him, he opened his arms wide and she ran
straight into them, and laid her head on his shoulder, sobbing, and
talking incoherently. While Harlan, his grin fading as he looked at her
pursuer--who had halted within half a dozen paces of the girl--commanded
lowly:

"You're runnin' plumb into a heap of trouble, mister man. Throw your rope
around the snubbin' post. Then get on your hind legs an' do some
explainin'. What you chasin' this girl for?"

The man reddened, looked downward, then up at Deveny. The latter, a pout
on his lips, his eyes glowing savagely, walked to where Harlan stood with
one arm around the girl, while Lawson, Rogers, Gage, and several other
men advanced slowly and stood near him.



CHAPTER VII

SINGLE-HANDED


Noting the concerted movement toward him, Harlan grinned at Barbara,
gently disengaged himself from her grasp, and urged her toward the door
of the sheriff's office. She made no objection, for she felt that further
trouble impended, and she knew she must not impede any action her rescuer
planned.

Reaching the street a few minutes before, she had noted the preparations
for the swift tragedy that had followed; and despite her wild desire to
escape Deveny's man, she had halted, fascinated by the spectacle
presented by the two men, gambling with death.

She had halted at a little distance, crouching against the front of a
building. And while she had been crouching there, trembling with a new
apprehension, her pursuer had caught her.

She had hardly been aware of him, and his grasp on her arm she had not
resisted, so intense was her interest in what was transpiring. But the
sudden ending of the affair brought again into her consciousness the
recollection of her own peril, and when she saw Deveny cross the street
she broke from the man's restraining grasp and ran to Harlan, convinced
that he--because he seemed to be antagonistic toward the forces arrayed
against her--would protect her.

And now, shrinking into the open doorway of the sheriff's office, she
watched breathlessly, with straining senses, the moving figures in the
drama.

Harlan had backed a little way toward the doorway in which Barbara stood.
The movement was strategic, and had been accomplished with deliberation.
He was facing Lamo's population--at least that proportion of it which was
at home--with the comforting assurance that no part of it could get
behind him.

The gun he had drawn upon the approach of Barbara's pursuer was still in
his right hand. It menaced no one, and yet it seemed to menace everyone
within range of it.

For though the gun was held loosely in Harlan's hand, the muzzle
downward, there was a glow in the man's eyes that conveyed a warning.

The smile on his face, too, was pregnant with the promise of violence. It
was a surface smile, penetrating no deeper than his lips, and behind it,
partially masked by the smile, the men in the group in the street could
detect the destroying passion that ruled the man at this instant.

Deveny, who had approached to a point within a dozen feet of Harlan, came
to a slow, reluctant halt when he caught a glimpse of the strange glow in
Harlan's eyes. All the others, Sheriff Gage included, likewise
halted--most of them at a considerable distance, as their conceptions of
prudence suggested.

Harlan's grin grew ironic as he noted the pause--the concerted rigidity
of Lamo's population.

"Seems there's a heap of folks wantin' to palaver," he said lowly. "An'
no one is crowdin' me. That's polite an' proper. Seems you all sort of
guessed there's plenty of room, an' crowdin' ain't necessary. I'd thank
every specimen to hook his thumbs in the armholes of his vest--same as
though he's a member of the pussy-café outfit which I've seen in
Chicago, makin' moon-eyes at girls. If there's any of you ain't got on
vests, why, you can fasten your sky-hooks on your shoulders any way to
suit your idee of safety. Get them up!"

It seemed ludicrous to Barbara, despite the shadow of tragedy that lurked
over it all--the embarrassed manner in which Lamo's citizens complied
with the command, and the spectacle they presented afterward.

Deveny's hands were the last to go up. There was a coldly malignant glare
in his eyes as under Harlan's unwavering gaze he finally raised his hands
and held them, palms outward, as for inspection.

Rogers had complied instantly. There was a smile on his face, faint and
suggestive of grim amusement, for he had been mentally tortured over the
contemplation of Barbara's predicament, and had been unable to think of
any plan by which he might assist her.

Meeder Lawson's face was sullen and full of impotent rage, and he watched
Deveny with a gaze of bitter accusation when he saw that the big man
intended to obey Harlan's order. Barbara's pursuer, having felt Deveny's
angry gaze upon him, and being uncomfortably conscious that Harlan had
not forgotten him, was red of face and self-conscious. He started, and
the red in his face deepened, when Harlan, in the silence which followed
the concerted raising of hands, spoke sharply to him:

"What was you tryin' to corral that girl for? Talk fast or I'll bust you
wide open!"

The man grinned foolishly, shooting a furtive glance at Deveny.

"Why," he said, noting Deveny's scowl, "I reckon it was because I'd took
a shine to her. I was tryin' to cotton up to her on the landin' about the
Eatin'-House, an' she----"

"You lie!"

This was Barbara. Pale, her eyes flashing with indignation, she stepped
down into the street, standing near Harlan.

"That man," Barbara went on, pointing to the red-faced pursuer, "told me
early this morning that Luke Deveny had told him to watch me, that I was
not to leave my room until Deveny came for me. I was a prisoner. He
didn't try to make love to me. I should have killed him."

Speech had broken the tension under which Barbara had been laboring; the
flow of words through her lips stimulated her thoughts and sent them
skittering back to the salient incidents of her enforced confinement;
they brought into her consciousness a recollection of the conversation
she had heard between Meeder Lawson and Strom Rogers, regarding her
father. She forgot Harlan, Deveny, and the others, and ran to Sheriff
Gage.

Gage, a tall, slender man of forty, was pale and uncomfortable as he
looked down at the girl's white, upturned face. He shrank from the
frenzied appeal of her eyes, and he endured the pain of her tightly
gripping fingers on the flesh of his arms without flinching.

"Did--is father _dead_!"

She waited, frantically shaking Gage. And Gage did not answer until his
gaze had roamed the crowd.

Then he said slowly and reluctantly:

"I reckon he's dead. Deveny was tellin' me--he was chargin' this man,
Harlan, with killin' your father."

Barbara wheeled and faced Deveny. Rage, furious and passionate, had
overwhelmed the grief she felt over the death of her father. The shock
had been tremendous, but it had come while she had been leaning out of
the window listening to Rogers and Lawson--when she had lain for many
minutes unconscious on the floor of the room. Therefore the emotion she
experienced now was not entirely grief, it was rather a frantic yearning
to punish the men who had killed her father.

"You charged this man with murdering my father?" she demanded of Deveny
as she walked to him and stood, her hands clenched, her face dead white
and her eyes blazing hate. "You know better. I heard Strom Rogers tell
Meeder Lawson that it was Dolver and Laskar and somebody he called the
'Chief,' who did it. I want to know who those men are; I want to know
where I can find them! I want you to tell me!"

"You're unstrung, Barbara," said Deveny slowly, coolly, a faint smile on
his face. "I know nothing about it. I merely repeated to Gage the word
Laskar brought. Laskar said this man Harlan shot your father. It happened
about a day's ride out--near Sentinel Rock. If Laskar lied, he was paid
for his lying. For Harlan has----"

Deveny paused, the sentence unfinished, for the girl turned abruptly from
him and walked to Harlan.

"That was Laskar--the man you killed just now?"

"Laskar an' Dolver," relied Harlan. "There was three of them your father
said. One got away in the night, leavin' Dolver an' Laskar to finish the
job. I run plumb into them, crossin' here from Pardo. I bored Dolver, but
I let Laskar off, not havin' the heart to muss up the desert with scum
like him."

The girl's eyes gleamed for an instant with venomous satisfaction. Then
she said, tremulously:

"And father?"

"I buried him near the rock," returned Harlan, lowly.

Soundlessly, closing her eyes, Barbara sank into the dust of the street.

Harlan broke the force of her fall with his left hand, supporting her
partially until she collapsed; then, his eyes alight with a cold flame,
he called, sharply, his gaze still on the group of men:

"Get her, Gage! Take her into your place!"

He waited until Gage carried the slack form inside. Then, his shoulders
sagging, the heavy pistol in his right hand coming to a poise, the
fingers of the left hand brushing the butt of the weapon in the holster
at his left hip, the vacuous gleam in his eyes telling them all that his
senses were alert to catch the slightest movement, he spoke, to Deveny:

"I seen that desert deal. It wasn't on the level. I ain't no angel, but
when I down a man I do it fair an' square--givin' him his chance. I sent
that sneak Dolver out--an' that coyote Laskar. It was a dirty, rotten
deal, the way they framed up on Morgan. It's irritated me--I reckon you
can hear my rattles right now. I'm stayin' in Lamo, an' I'm stickin' by
this Barbara girl until you guys learn to walk straight up, like men!"

He paused, and a heavy silence descended. No man moved. A sneer began to
wreathe Harlan's lips--a twisting, mocking, sardonic sneer that expressed
his contempt for the men who faced him.

"Not havin' any thoughts, eh?" he jeered. "There's some guys that would
rather do their fightin' with women, an' their thoughts wouldn't sound
right if they put words around them. I ain't detainin' you no longer. Any
man who thinks it's time to call for a show-down can do his yappin' right
now. Them that's dead certain they're through can mosey along, takin'
care not to try any monkey business!"

He stood, watching, his wide gaze including them all, until, one after
another the men in the group silently moved away. They did not go far.
Some of them merely stepped into near-by doorways, others sauntered
slowly down the street and halted at a little distance to look back.

But no man made a hostile move, for they had seen the tragedy in which
Laskar had figured, and they had no desire to provoke Harlan to express
again the cold wrath that slumbered in his eyes.

Meeder Lawson was the first of Deveny's intimates to leave the group. His
face sullen, his eyes venomous, he walked across the street to the First
Chance, and stood in the doorway, beside Balleau, who had been an
interested onlooker.

Then Strom Rogers moved. He wheeled slowly, flashing an inquiring glance
at Deveny--who still stood motionless. Deveny had lowered his hands--they
were hanging at his sides, the right hand having the palm toward Harlan,
giving eloquent testimony of its owner's peaceable intentions.

Rogers' glance included the out-turned palm, and his lips curved in a
faint smile. The smile held as his glance went to Harlan's face, and for
an instant as the eyes of the two men met, appraisal was the emotion that
ruled in them. Harlan detected in Rogers' eyes a grim scorn of Deveny,
and a malignant satisfaction; Rogers saw in Harlan's eyes a thing that
not one of the men who had faced the man had seen--cold humor.

Then Rogers was walking away, leaving Deveny to face the man who had
disrupted his plans.

Deveny had not changed his position, and for an instant following the
departure of Rogers, there was no word spoken. Then for the first time
since he had dismounted from Purgatory, Harlan's eyes lost their wide,
inclusive vacuity. They met Deveny's fairly, with a steady, direct,
boring intensity; a light in them that resembled the yellow flame that
Deveny had once seen in the eyes of a Mexican jaguar some year before at
a camp on the Neuces.

Deveny knew what the light in Harlan's eyes meant. It meant the presence
of a wild, rending passion, of elemental impulses; it meant that the man
who faced him was eager to kill him, was awaiting his slightest hostile
movement. It meant more. The gleam in Harlan's eyes indicated that the
man possessed that strange and almost uncanny instinct of thought
reading, that he could detect in another's eyes a mental impulse before
the other's muscles could answer it. Also, it meant certain death to
Deveny should he obey the half-formed determination to draw and shoot,
that was in his mind at this instant.

He dropped his lids, attempting to veil the thought from Harlan. But when
he again looked up it was to see Harlan's lips twisting into a cold
smile--to see Harlan slowly sheathing the gun he had held in his right
hand.

And now Harlan was standing before him, both weapons in their holsters.
He and Deveny were facing each other upon a basis of equality. Harlan had
disdained taking advantage.

Apparently, if Deveny now elected to draw and shoot, his chances were as
good as Harlan's.

And yet Deveny knew they were not as good. For Harlan's action in
sheathing his gun convinced Deveny that the man had divined his thoughts
from the expression of his eyes before he had veiled them with the lids,
and he was convinced that Harlan had sensed the chill of dread that had
swept over him at that instant. He was sure of it when he heard Harlan's
voice, low and taunting:

"You waitin' for a show-down?"

Deveny smiled, pallidly. "I don't mind telling you that I _did_ have a
notion that way a moment ago. But I was afraid I might be a little slow.
When you downed Laskar I watched you, trying to learn the secret of your
draw. I didn't learn it, because there is no secret--you're just a
natural gunslinger without a flaw. You're the fastest man with a gun I
ever saw--and I'm taking my hat off to you."

Harlan smiled faintly, but his eyes did not lose their alertness, nor did
the flame in them cool visibly. Only his lips betrayed whatever emotion
he felt. He distrusted Deveny, for he had seen the half-formed
determination in the man's eyes, and his muscles were tensed in
anticipation of a trick.

"You didn't stay here to tell me that. Get goin' with the real talk."

"That's right--I didn't," said Deveny. He was cool, now, and bland,
having recovered his poise.

"Higgins _was_ watching Barbara Morgan at my orders. But I meant no harm
to the girl. I knew she was in town, and I heard there were a few of the
boys that were making plans about her. So I set Higgins to guard her.
Naturally, she thought I meant harm to her."

"Naturally," said Harlan.

Deveny said coolly: "I'll admit I have a bad reputation. But it doesn't
run to women. It's more in your line." He looked significantly at the
other.

"Meanin'?"

"Oh, hell--you know well enough what I mean. You're not such a
law-abiding citizen, yourself. I've heard of you--often. And I've admired
you. To get right down to the point--I could find a place where you'd fit
in just right. We're needing another man--a man of your general size and
character."

Harlan grinned. "I'm thankin' you. An' I sure appreciate what you've
said. You've been likin' me so much that you tried to frame up on me
about sendin' Lane Morgan out."

"That's business," laughed Deveny. "You were an unknown quantity, then."

"But not now--eh?" returned Harlan, his eyes gleaming with a cold humor.
"You've got me sized up right. The yappin' I done about stickin' to
Barbara Morgan wasn't the real goods, eh?"

"Certainly not!" laughed Deveny, "there must be some selfish motive
behind that."

"An' you sure didn't believe me?"

"Of course not," chuckled Deveny, for he thought he saw a gleam of
insincerity in Harlan's eyes.

"Then I've got to do my yappin' all over again," said Harlan. "Now get
this straight. I'm stickin' to Barbara Morgan. I'm runnin' the Rancho
Seco from now on. I'm runnin' it _my_ way. Nobody is botherin' Barbara
Morgan except them guys she wants to have bother her. That lets you out.
You're a rank coyote, an' I don't have no truck with you except at the
business end of a gun. Now take your damned, sneakin' grin over an' wet
it down, or I'll blow you apart!"

Deveny's face changed color. It became bloated with a poisonous wrath,
his eyes gleamed evilly and his muscles tensed. He stood, straining
against the murder lust that had seized him, almost persuaded to take the
slender chance of beating Harlan to his weapon.

"You got notions, eh?" he heard Harlan say, jeeringly. "Well, don't spoil
'em. I'd admire to make you feel like you'd ought to have got started a
week ago."

Deveny smiled with hideous mirthlessness. But he again caught the flame
in Harlan's eyes. He wheeled, saying nothing more, and walked across the
street without looking back.

Smiles followed him; several men commented humorously, and almost
immediately, knowing that this last crisis had passed, Lamo's citizens
resumed their interrupted pleasures.

Harlan stood motionless until Deveny vanished into the First Chance, then
he turned quickly and entered the sheriff's office.



CHAPTER VIII

BARBARA IS PUZZLED


Half an hour later, with Barbara Morgan, on "Billy"--a piebald
pinto--riding beside him, Harlan loped Purgatory out of Lamo. They took a
trail--faint and narrow--that led southward, for Barbara had said that
the Rancho Seco lay in that direction.

Harlan had not seen Deveny or Rogers or Lawson after the scene in front
of the sheriff's office. He had talked for some time with Gage, waiting
until Barbara Morgan recovered slightly from the shock she had suffered.
Then when he had told her that he intended to accompany her to the Rancho
Seco--and she had offered no objection--he had gone on a quest for her
pony, finding him in the stable in the rear of the Eating-House.

So far as Harlan knew, no one in Lamo besides Sheriff Gage had watched
the departure of himself and Barbara. And there had been no word spoken
between the two as they rode away--Lamo becoming at last an almost
invisible dot in the great yawning space they left behind them.

Barbara felt a curious unconcern for what was happening; her brain was in
a state of dull apathy, resulting from shock and the period of dread
under which she had lived for more than a day and a night.

She did not seem to care what happened to her. She knew, to be sure, that
she was riding toward the Rancho Seco with a man whom she had heard
called an outlaw by other men; she was aware that she must be risking
something by accepting his escort--and yet she could not bring herself to
feel that dread fear that she knew any young woman in her position should
feel.

It seemed to her that nothing mattered now--very much. Her father was
dead--murdered by some men--two of whom had been punished by death, and
another--a mysterious person called the "Chief"--who would be killed as
soon as she could find him. That resolution was deeply fixed in her mind.

Her gaze though, after a while, went to Harlan, and for many miles she
studied him without his suspecting. And gradually she began to think
about him, to wonder why he had protected her from the man, Higgins, and
why he was going with her to the Rancho Seco.

She provided--after a while--an answer to her first question: He had
protected her because she had run into his arms in her effort to escape
the clutches of the man who had pursued her--Higgins. She remembered that
while she had been at the window, watching Harlan when he had dismounted
in front of the sheriff's office, he had seemed to make a favorable
impression upon her.

That was the reason, when she had seen him before her in the street, after
he had shot Laskar, she had selected him as a protector. That had seemed
to be the logical thing to do, for he had arrayed himself against her
enemies in killing Laskar, and it was reasonable to suppose--conceding
Laskar and Higgins were leagued with Deveny--that Harlan would protect
her.

It all seemed exceedingly natural, that far. It was when she began to
wonder why Harlan was with her now that an element of mystery seemed to
rule. And she was puzzled.

She began to speculate over Harlan, and her mental efforts in that
direction banished the somber thoughts that had almost overwhelmed her
after the discovery of her father's death. Yet they had ridden more than
ten miles before she spoke.

"What made you decide to ride with me to the Rancho Seco?" she demanded
sharply.

Harlan flashed a grin at her. He was riding a little in advance of her,
and he had to turn in the saddle to see her face.

"I was headin' that way, an' wanted company. It sure gets lonesome ridin'
alone."

She caught her breath at this answer, for it seemed that he had not
revealed the real reason. And she had got her first good look at his
face. It was lean and strong. His eyes were deep-set and rimmed by heavy
lashes and brows, and there was a glow in them as he looked at her--a
compelling fixity that held her. Her own drooped, and were lifted to his
again in sheer curiosity, she thought at first.

It was only when she found herself, later, trying to catch his glance
again that she realized they were magnetic eyes, and that the glow in
them was of a subtle quality that could not be analyzed at a glance.

The girl was alert to detect a certain expression in his eyes--a gleam
that would tell her what she half feared--that the motive that had
brought him with her was like that which had caused Deveny to hold her
captive. But she could detect no such expression in Harlan's eyes, she
could see a quizzical humor in his glances at times, or frank interest,
and there were times when she saw a grim pity.

And the pity affected her strangely. It brought him close to
her--figuratively; it convinced her that he was a man of warm sympathies
in spite of the reputation he held in the Territory.

She had heard her father speak of him--always with a sort of awe in his
voice; and tales of his reckless daring, his Satanic cleverness with a
six-shooter, of his ruthlessness, had reached her ears from other
sources. He had seemed, then, like some evil character of mythology,
remote and far, and not likely to appear in the flesh in her section of
the country.

It seemed impossible that she had fled to such a man for protection--and
that he had protected her; and that she was now riding beside him--or
slightly behind him--and that, to all appearances, he was quite as
respectful toward her as other men. That, she surmised, was what made it
all seem so strange.

Harlan did not seem disposed to talk; and he kept Purgatory slightly in
the lead--except when the trail grew dim or disappeared altogether. Then
he would pull the black horse up, look inquiringly at Barbara, and urge
Purgatory after her when she took the lead.

But there were many things that Barbara wanted to inquire about; and it
was when they were crossing a big level between some rimming hills, where
the trail was broad, that she urged her pony beside the black.

"Won't you tell me about father--how he died?" she asked.

He looked sharply at her, saw that she was now quite composed, and
drawing Purgatory to a walk, began to relate to her the incident of the
fight at Sentinel Rock. His story was brief--brutally brief, she might
have thought, had she not been watching his face during the telling,
noting the rage that flamed in his eyes when he spoke of Dolver and
Laskar and the mysterious "Chief."

It was plain to the girl that he had sympathized with her father; and it
was quite as plain that he now sympathized with her. And thus she
mentally recorded another point in his favor:

He might be a gunman, a ruthless killer, an outlaw of such evil
reputation that men mentioned his name with awe in their voices--but she
_knew_, now, that he had a keen sense of justice, and that the murder of
her father had aroused the retributive instinct in him.

Also, she was convinced that compared to Deveny, Rogers, and Lawson, he
was a gentleman. At least, so far he had not looked at her as those men
had looked at her. He had been with her now for several hours, in a
lonely country where there was no law except his own desires, and he had
been as gravely courteous and considerate as it was possible for any man
to be.

When he finished his story, having neglected to mention the paper he had
removed from one of the cylinders of Morgan's pistol--upon which was
written instructions regarding the location of the gold Morgan had
secreted--Barbara rode for a long time in silence, her head bowed, her
eyes moist.

At last she looked up. Harlan's gaze was straight ahead; he was watching
the trail, where it vanished over the crest of a high ridge, and he did
not seem to be aware of Barbara's presence.

"And father told you to tell me--wanted you to bring the news to me?"

Harlan nodded.

"Then," she went on "your obligation--if you were under any--seems to
have been completed. You need not have come out of your way."

"I was headed this way."

"To the Rancho Seco?" she questioned, astonished.

Again he nodded. But this time there was a slight smile on his lips.

Her own straightened, and her eyes glowed with a sudden suspicion.

"That's odd," she said; "very odd."

"What is?"

"That you should be on your way to the Rancho Seco--and that you should
encounter father--that you should happen to reach Sentinel Rock about the
time he was murdered."

He looked straight at her, noting the suspicion in her eyes. His low
laugh had a hint of irony in it.

"I've heard of such things," he said.

"What?"

"About guys happenin' to run plumb into a murder when they was innocent
of it--an' of them bein' accused of the murder."

It was the mocking light in his eyes that angered her, she believed--and
the knowledge that he had been aware of her suspicion before it had
become half formed in her mind.

"I'm not accusing you!" she declared.

"You said it was odd that I'd be headed this way--after I'd told you all
there was to tell."

"It is!" she maintained.

"Well," he conceded; "mebbe it's odd. But I'm still headin' for the
Rancho Seco. Mebbe I forgot to tell you that your father said I was to
go--that he made me promise to go."

He had not mentioned that before; and the girl glanced sharply at him. He
met the glance with a slow grin which had in it a quality of that
subtleness she had noticed in him before. A shiver of trepidation ran
over her. But she sat rigid in the saddle, determined she would not be
afraid of him. For the exchange of talk between them, and his considerate
manner--everything about him--had convinced her that he was much like
other men--men who respect women.

"There is no evidence that father made you promise to go to the Rancho
Seco."

"There wasn't no evidence that I made any promise to keep that man Deveny
from herd-ridin' you," he said shortly, with a grin. "I'm sure goin' to
the Rancho Seco."

"Suppose I should not wish it--what then?"

"I'd keep right on headin' for there--keepin' my promise."

"Do you always keep your promises?" she asked, mockery in her voice.

"When I make 'em. Usually, I don't do any promisin'. But when I do--that
promise is goin' to be kept. If you ain't likin' my company, ma'am, why,
I reckon there's a heap of trail ahead. An' I ain't afraid of gettin'
lost."

"Isn't that remarkable!" she jeered.

He looked at her with sober eyes. "If we're figurin' on hittin' the
Rancho Seco before night we'll have to quit our gassin' an' do some
travelin'," he advised. "Accordin' to the figures we've got about forty
miles to ride, altogether. We've come about fifteen--an'," he looked at a
silver watch which he drew from a pocket, "it's pretty near two now."

Without further words--for it seemed useless to argue the point upon
which he was so obviously determined--Barbara urged Billy on, taking the
lead.

For more than an hour she maintained the lead, riding a short distance in
advance, and seemingly paying no attention to Harlan. Yet she noted that
he kept about the same distance from her always--though she never
permitted him to observe that she watched him, for her backward glances
were taken out of the corners of her eyes, when she pretended to be
looking at the country on one side or the other.

Harlan, however, noted the glances. And his lips curved into a faint grin
as he rode. Once when he had dropped behind a little farther than usual,
he leaned over and whispered into Purgatory's ear:

"She's sure ignorin' us, ain't she, you black son-of-a-gun! She ain't
looked back here more'n three times in the last five minutes!"

And yet Harlan's jocular mood did not endure long. During those intervals
in which Barbara kept her gaze straight ahead on the trail, Harlan
regarded her with a grave intentness that betrayed the soberness of his
thoughts.

In all his days he had seen no woman like her; and when she had come
toward him in Lamo, with Higgins close behind her, he had been so
astonished that he had momentarily forgotten Deveny and all the rest of
them.

Women of the kind he had met had never affected him as Barbara had
affected him. He had still a mental picture of her as she had come toward
him, with her hair flying in a golden-brown mass over her shoulders; her
wide, fear-lighted eyes seeking his with an expression of appeal so
eloquent that it had sent a queer, thrilling, protective sensation over
him.

And as she rode ahead of him it was the picture she had made _then_ that
he saw; and the emotions that assailed him were the identical emotions
that had beset him when for a brief instant, in Lamo, he had held her in
his arms, with her head resting on his shoulder.

That, he felt, had been the real Barbara Morgan. Her manner now--the
constrained and distant pose she had adopted, her suspicions, her
indignation--all those were outward manifestations of the reaction that
had seized her. The real Barbara Morgan was she who had run to him for
protection and she would always be to him as she had appeared then--a
soft, yielding, trembling girl who, at a glance had trusted him enough to
run straight into his arms.



CHAPTER IX

AN UNWELCOME GUEST


It was late afternoon when Barbara and Harlan--the girl still riding a
little in advance of the man--rode their horses out of a stretch of
broken country featured by low, barren hills and ragged draws, and came
to the edge of a vast level of sage and mesquite that stretched southward
an interminable distance.

The sun was low--a flaming red disk that swam in a sea of ever-changing
color between the towering peaks of two mighty mountains miles
westward--and the sky above the big level upon which Barbara and Harlan
rode was a pale amethyst set in the dull gray frame of the dusk that was
rising from the southern and eastern horizons.

Eastward the gray was pierced by the burning, flaming prismatic streaks
that stretched straight from the cleft in the mountains where the sun was
sinking--the sun seemed to be sending floods of new color into the
streaks as he went, deepening those that remained; tinging it all with
harmonious tones--rose and pearl and violet and saffron blending them
with a giant, magic brush--recreating them, making the whole background
of amethyst sky glow like a huge jewel touched by the myriad colors of a
mighty rainbow.

The trail taken by Barbara Morgan ran now, in a southeasterly direction,
and it seemed to Harlan that they were riding straight into the folds of
a curtain of gauze. For a haze was rising into the effulgent expanse of
color, and the sun's rays, striking it, wrought their magic upon it.

Harlan, accustomed to sunsets--with a matter-of-fact attitude toward all
of nature's phenomena--caught himself admiring this one. So intent was he
that he looked around with a start when Purgatory halted, to find that
Barbara had drawn Billy down and was sitting in the saddle close to him,
watching him, her eyes luminous with an emotion that thrilled Harlan
strangely.

"This is the most beautiful place in the world," she declared in a voice
that seemed to quaver with awe.

"It's sure a beauty," agreed Harlan. "I've been in a heap of places where
they had sunsets, but dump 'em all together an' they wouldn't make an
edge on this display. She's sure a hummer!"

The girl's eyes seemed to leap at his praise.

"I never want to leave this place," she said. "There is nothing like it.
Those two mountains that you see far out into the west--where the sun is
going down--are about forty miles distant. If you will notice, you can
see that there are other mountains--much smaller--connected with them.
They are two small ranges, and they melt into the plains there--and
there."

She pointed to the south and to the north, where the two ranges,
seemingly extending straight westward, merged into the edge of the big
level where Barbara and Harlan sat on their horses.

The two ranges were perhaps a dozen miles apart, separated by a low level
valley through which ran a narrow river, its surface glowing like
burnished gold in the rays of the sinking sun.

Gazing westward--straight into the glow--Harlan noted the virgin wildness
of the immense valley. It lay, serene, slumberous; its salient
features--ridges, low hills, rocky promontories and wooded slopes--touched
by the rose tints that descended upon them; while in the depressions
reigned purple shadows, soft-toned, blending perfectly with the brighter
colors.

With the sunset glow upon it; with the bastioned hills--barren at their
peaks, ridged and seamed--looming clear and definite above the vast
expanse of green, the colossal valley stretched, with no movement in it
or above it--in a vacuum-like stillness that might have reigned over the
world on the dawn of creation's first morning.

Harlan looked covertly at Barbara. The girl's face was pale, and her eyes
were glowing with a light that made him draw a long breath of sympathy
and understanding. But it had been many years since he had felt the
thrill of awe that she was experiencing at this minute.

He knew that presently the spell would pass, and that material things
would exact their due. And the resulting contrast between the beauty of
the picture upon which she was gazing, and the solemn realization of loss
that memory would bring, instantly, would almost crush her.

Therefore he spoke seriously when he caught her looking at him.

"There's sunsets _an'_ sunsets," he said. "They tell me that they're a
heap common in some parts of the world. Wyoming, now--Wyoming prides
herself on sunsets. An' I've heard they have 'em in Italy, an'
France--an' some more of them foreign places--where guys go to look at
'em. But it's always seemed to me that there ain't a heap of sense in
gettin' fussed up over a sunset. The sun has got his work to do; an' he
does it without any fussin'. An' they tell me that it's the same sun that
sets in all them places I've been tellin' you about.

"Well, it's always been my idee that the sun ain't got no compliments due
him--he'll set mighty beautiful--sometimes; an' folks will get awed an'
thrilly over him. But the next day--if a man happens to be ridin' in the
desert, where there ain't any water, he'll cuss the sun pretty
thorough--forgettin' the nice things he said about it once."

Barbara scowled at him.

"You haven't a bit of poetry in your soul!" she charged. "I'm sorry we
stopped to look at the valley or the sun--or anything. You don't--you
can't appreciate the beautiful!"

He was silent as she urged Billy onward. And as they fled southwestward,
with Purgatory far behind, Harlan swept his hat from his head and bowed
toward the mighty valley, saying lowly:

"You're sure a hummer--an' no mistake. But if a man had any poetry in his
soul--why----"

He rode on, gulping his delight over having accomplished what he had
intended to accomplish.

"She'll be givin' it to me pretty regular; an' she won't have time for no
solemn thoughts. They'll come later, though, when she gets to the Rancho
Seco."

It was the lowing of cattle that at last brought to Harlan the conviction
that they were near the Rancho Seco--that and the sight of the roofs of
some buildings that presently came into view.

But they had been riding for half an hour before they came upon the
cattle and buildings, and the flaming colors had faded into somber gray
tones. The filmy dusk that precedes darkness was beginning to settle over
the land; and into the atmosphere had come that solemn hush with which
the wide, open places greet the night.

Barbara had no further word to say to Harlan until they reached a group
of buildings that were scattered on a big level near a river. They had
passed a long stretch of wire fence, which Harlan suspected, enclosed a
section of land reserved for a pasture; and the girl brought her pony to
a halt in front of an adobe building near a high rail fence.

"This is the Rancho Seco," she said shortly. "This is the stable. Over
there is the ranchhouse. Evidently the men are all away somewhere."

She got off the pony, removed the saddle and bridle, carried them into
the stable, came out again, and opened a gate in the fence, through which
she sent "Billy." Then she closed the gate and turned to Harlan, who had
dismounted and was standing at Purgatory's head.

"I thank you for what you have done for me," she said, coldly. "And now,
I should like to know just what you purpose to do--and why you have
come."

Harlan's eyes narrowed as he returned her gaze. He remembered Lane
Morgan's words: "John Haydon is dead stuck on Barbara;" and he had
wondered ever since the meeting in Lamo if Barbara returned Haydon's
affection, or if she trusted Haydon enough to confide in him.

Barbara's attitude toward Haydon would affect Harlan's attitude toward
the girl. For if she loved Haydon, or trusted him enough to confide in
him--or even to communicate with him concerning ordinary details, Harlan
could not apprise her of the significance of his presence at the Rancho
Seco.

For Haydon was unknown to Harlan and Harlan was not inclined to accept
Morgan's praise of him as conclusive evidence of the man's worthiness.
Besides, Morgan had qualified his instructions with: "Take a look at John
Haydon, an' if you think he's on the level--an' you want to drift
on--turn things over to him."

Harlan did not want to "drift on." Into his heart since his meeting in
Lamo with Barbara--and during the ride to the Rancho Seco--had grown a
decided reluctance toward "drifting." And not even the girl's scorn could
have forced him to leave her at the ranch, unprotected.

But he could not tell her why he could not go. Despite her protests he
must remain--at least until he was able to determine the character of
John Haydon.

A gleam of faint mockery came into his eyes as he looked at Barbara.

"I'm keepin' my promise to your dad--I'm stayin' at the Rancho Seco
because he told me to stay. He wanted me to sort of look out that nothin'
happened to you. I reckon we'll get along."

The girl caught her breath sharply. In the growing darkness Harlan's
smile seemed to hold an evil significance; it seemed to express a thought
that took into consideration the loneliness of the surroundings, the fact
that she was alone, and that she was helpless. More--it seemed to be a
presumptuous smile, insinuating, full of dire promise.

For Harlan was an outlaw--she could not forget that! He bore a reputation
for evil that had made him feared wherever men congregated; and as she
watched him it seemed to her that his face betrayed signs of his
ruthlessness, his recklessness, and his readiness for violence of every
kind.

He might not have killed her father--Rogers and Lawson had acquitted him
of that. But he might be lying about the promise to her father merely for
the purpose of providing an excuse to come to the Rancho Seco. It seemed
to her that if her father had really exacted a promise from him he would
have written to her, or sent her some token to prove the genuineness of
it. There was no visible evidence of Harlan's truthfulness.

"Do you mean to say you are going to stay here--indefinitely?" she
demanded, her voice a little hoarse from the fright that was stealing
over her.

He smiled at her. "You've hit it about right, ma'am."

"I don't want you to stay here!" she declared, angrily.

"I'm stayin', ma'am." His smile faded, and his eyes became
serious--earnest.

"Later on--when things shape themselves up--I'll tell you why I'm
stayin'. But just now----"

She shrank from him, incredulous, a growing fear plain in her eyes. And
before he could finish what he intended to say she had wheeled, and was
running toward the ranchhouse.

He watched until she vanished through an open doorway; he heard the door
slam, and caught the sound of bars being hurriedly dropped into place.
And after that he stood for a time watching the house. No light came from
within, and no other sound.

He frowned slightly, drawing a mental picture of the girl inside,
yielding to the terror that had seized her. Then after a while he walked
down along the corral fence until he came to another building--a
bunkhouse. And for a long time he stood in the doorway of the building,
watching the ranchhouse, afflicted with grim sympathy.

"It ain't so damn' cheerful, at that," he mused. "I reckon she thinks
she's landed into trouble with both feet--with her dad cashin' in like he
did, an' Deveny after her. It sure must be pretty hard to consider all
them things. An' on top of that I mosey along, with a reputation as a
no-good son-of-a-gun, an' scare the wits out of her with my homely mug.
An' I can't tell her why she hadn't ought to be scared. I call that
mighty mean."



CHAPTER X

ON GUARD


The man whose soul held no love of the poetic sat for two or three hours
on the threshold of the bunkhouse door, his gaze on the ranchhouse. He
was considering his "reputation," and he had reached the conclusion that
Barbara Morgan had reason to fear him--if rumor's tongues had related to
her all of the crimes that had been attributed to him. And he knew she
must have heard a great many tales about him, for rumor is a tireless
worker.

And for the first time in his life Harlan regretted that he had permitted
rumor to weave her fabric of lies. For not one of the stories that
luridly portrayed him in the rôle of a ruthless killer and outlaw was
true.

It was easy enough for him to understand how he had gained that
reputation. He grinned mirthlessly now, as he mentally reviewed a past
which _had_ been rather like the record of a professional man-killer. And
yet, reviewing his past--from the day about five years ago, when he had
shot a Taos bully who had drawn a gun on him with murderous intent, until
today, when he had sent Laskar to his death--he could not remember one
shooting affray for which he could be blamed. As a matter of fact, he
had--by the courts in some instances, and by witnesses in others, where
there were no courts--been held blameless.

There had been men who had seen Harlan draw his weapons with deadly
intent--men who insisted that the man's purpose was plain, to goad an
enemy to draw a weapon, permitting him partially to draw it, and then to
depend upon his superior swiftness and unerring aim. And this theory of
Harlan's character had gone abroad.

And because the theory had been accepted, Harlan's name became associated
with certain crimes which are inseparable from the type of character
which the popular imagination had given him. Strangers--criminals--in
certain towns in the Territory and out of it must have heard with
considerable satisfaction that their depredations had been charged to
Harlan. Only once had Harlan been able to refute the charge of rumor.
That was when, having passed a night in the company of Dave Hallowell,
the marshal of Pardo, word was brought by a stage-driver that "Drag"
Harlan had killed a man in Dry Bottom--a town two hundred miles
north--and that Harlan had escaped, though a posse had been on his trail.

Even when the driver was confronted by Harlan in the flesh he was
doubtful, surrendering grudgingly, as though half convinced that Harlan
had been able to transport himself over the distance from Dry Bottom to
Pardo by some magic not mentioned.

So it had gone. But the terrible record of evil deeds attributed to
Harlan had not affected him greatly. In the beginning--when he had killed
the Taos bully--he had been reluctant to take life; and he had avoided,
as much as possible, company in which he would be forced to kill to
protect himself.

And through it all he had been able to maintain his poise, his
self-control. The reputation he had achieved would have ruined some
men--would have filled them with an ambition to fulfil the specifications
of the mythical terror men thought him. There was a danger there; Harlan
had felt it. There was a certain satisfaction in being pointed out as a
man with whom other men dared not trifle; respect of a fearsome equality
was granted him--he had seen it in the eyes of men, as he had seen an
awed adulation in the eyes of women.

He had felt them all--all the emotions that a real desperado could feel.
He had experienced the impulse to swagger, to pose--really to live the
part that his ill-fame had given him.

But he had resisted those impulses; and the glow in his eyes when in the
presence of men who feared him was not the passion to kill, but a
humorous contempt of all men who abased themselves before him.

On the night he had been with Dave Hallowell, the marshal of Pardo, he
had listened with steady interest to a story told him by the latter. It
concerned the Lamo region and the great basin at which he and Barbara
Morgan had been looking when the girl had accused him of a lack of poetic
feeling.

"I've heard reports about Sunset Valley," Hallowell had said, squinting
his eyes at Harlan. "I've met Sheriff Gage two or three times, an' he's
had somethin' to say about it. Accordin' to Gage, everything ain't on the
surface over there; there's somethin' behind all that robbin' an'
stealin' that's goin' on. There's somethin' big, but it's hid--an' no man
ain't ever been able to find out what it is. But it's somethin'.

"In the first place, Deveny's gang ain't never been heard of as pullin'
off anything anywheres else but in Sunset Valley. As for that, there's
plenty of room in the valley for them without gettin' out of it. But it
seems they'd get out once in a while. They don't--they stay right in the
valley, or close around it. Seems to me they've got a grudge ag'in' them
Sunset Valley ranchers, an' are workin' it off.

"Why? That question has got Gage guessin'. It's got everybody guessin'.
Stock is bein' run off in big bunches; men is bein' murdered without no
cause; no man is able to get any money in or out of the valley--an'
they're doin' other things that is makin' the cattlemen feel nervous an'
flighty.

"They've scared one man out--a Pole named Launski--from the far end. He
pulled stakes an' hit the breeze runnin' sellin' out for a song to a guy
named Haydon. I seen Launski when he clumb on the Lamo stage, headin'
this way, an' he sure was a heap relieved to get out with a whole skin."

Hallowell talked long, and the mystery that seemed to surround Sunset
Valley appealed to Harlan's imagination. Yet he did not reveal his
interest to Hallowell until the latter mentioned Barbara Morgan. Then his
eyes glowed, and he leaned closer to the marshal.

And when Hallowell remarked that Lane Morgan, of the Rancho Seco had
declared he would give half his ranch to a trustworthy man who could be
depended upon to "work his guns" in the interest of the Morgan family,
the slow tensing of Harlan's muscles might have betrayed the man's
emotions--for Hallowell grinned faintly.

Hallowell had said more. But he did not say that word had come to him
from Sheriff Gage--an appeal, rather--to the effect that Morgan had sent
to him for such a man, and that Gage had transmitted the appeal to
Hallowell. Hallowell thought he knew Harlan, and he was convinced that if
he told Harlan flatly that Morgan wanted to employ him for that definite
purpose, Harlan would refuse.

And so Hallowell had gone about his work obliquely. He knew Harlan more
intimately than he knew any other man in the country; and he was aware
that the chivalric impulse was stronger in Harlan than in any man he
knew.

And he was aware, too, that Harlan was scrupulously honest and square,
despite the evil structure which had been built around him by rumor. He
had watched Harlan for years, and knew him for exactly what he was--an
imaginative, reckless, impulsive spirit who faced danger with the steady,
unwavering eye of complete unconcern.

As Hallowell had talked of the Rancho Seco he had seen Harlan's eyes
gleam; seen his lips curve with a faint smile in which there was a hint
of waywardness. And so Hallowell knew he had scattered his words on
fertile mental soil.

And yet Harlan would not have taken the trail that led to the Rancho Seco
had not the killing of his friend, Davey Langan, followed closely upon
the story related to him by the marshal.

Harlan had ridden eastward, to Lazette--a matter of two hundred
miles--trailing a herd of cattle from the T Down--the ranch where he and
Langan were employed.

When he returned he heard the story of the killing of his friend by
Dolver and another man, not identified, but who rode a horse branded with
the L Bar M--which was the Rancho Seco brand.

It was Hallowell who broke the news of the murder to Harlan, together
with the story of his pursuit of Dolver and the other man, and of his
failure to capture them.

There was no thought of romance in Harlan's mind when he mounted
Purgatory to take up Dolver's trail; and when he came upon Dolver at
Sentinel Rock--and later, until he had talked with Lane Morgan--he had no
thought of offering himself to Morgan, to become that trustworthy man who
would "work his guns" for the Rancho Seco owner.

But after he had questioned Laskar--and had felt that Laskar was not the
accomplice of Dolver in the murder of Langan--he had determined to go to
the ranch, and had told Morgan of his determination.

Now, sitting on the threshold of the Rancho Seco bunkhouse, he realized
that his talk with Morgan had brought him here in a different rôle than
he had anticipated.

From where he sat he had a good view of all the buildings--low,
flat-roofed adobe structures, scattered on the big level with no regard
for system, apparently--erected as the needs of a growing ranch required.
Yet all were well kept and substantial, indicating that Lane Morgan had
been a man who believed in neatness and permanency.

The ranchhouse was the largest of the buildings. It was two stories high
on the side fronting the slope that led to the river, and another
section--in what appeared to be the rear, facing the bunkhouse, also had
a second story--a narrow, boxlike, frowning section which had the
appearance of a blockhouse on the parapet wall of a fort.

And that, Harlan divined, was just what it had been built for--for
defensive purposes. For the entire structure bore the appearance of age,
and the style of its architecture was an imitation of the Spanish type.
It was evident that Lane Morgan had considered the warlike instincts of
wandering bands of Apache Indians when he had built his house.

The walls connecting the fortlike section in the rear with the two-story
front were about ten feet in height, with few windows; and the entire
structure was built in a huge square, with an inner court, or _patio_,
reached by an entrance that penetrated the lower center of the two-story
section in front.

Harlan's interest centered heavily upon the ranchhouse, for it was there
that Barbara Morgan had hidden herself, fearing him.

She had entered a door that opened in the wall directly beneath the
fortlike second story, and it was upon this door that Harlan's gaze was
fixed. He smiled wryly, for sight of the door brought Barbara into his
thoughts--though he was not sure she had been out of them since the first
instant of his meeting with her in Lamo.

"They've been tellin' her them damn stories about me bein' a
hell-raiser--an' she believes 'em," he mused. And then his smile faded.
"An she ain't none reassured by my mug."

But it was upon the incident of his meeting with Barbara, and the odd
coincidence of his coming upon her father at Sentinel Rock, that his
thoughts dwelt longest.

It was odd--that meeting at Sentinel Rock. And yet not so odd, either,
considering everything.

For he had been coming to the Rancho Seco. Before he had reached Sentinel
Rock he had been determined to begin his campaign against the outlaws at
the Rancho Seco. It was his plan to ask Morgan for a job, and to spend as
much of his time as possible in getting information about Deveny and his
men, in the hope of learning the identity of the man who had assisted in
the murder of Langan.

What was odd about the incident was that Morgan should attempt to cross
to Pardo to have his gold assayed at just about the time Harlan had
decided to begin his trip to the Rancho Seco.

Harlan smiled as his gaze rested on the ranchhouse. He was glad he had
met Lane Morgan; he was glad he had headed straight for Lamo after
leaving Morgan. For by going straight to Lamo he had been able to balk
Deveny's evil intentions toward the girl who, in the house now, was so
terribly afraid of him.

He had told Morgan why he was headed toward the Rancho Seco section, but
he had communicated to Morgan that information only because he had wanted
to cheer the man in his last moments. That was what had made Morgan's
face light up as his life had ebbed away. And Harlan's eyes glowed now
with the recollection.

"The damned cuss--how he did brighten up!" he mused. "He sure was a heap
tickled to know that the deck wasn't all filled with dirty deuces."

And then Harlan's thoughts went again to Lamo, and to the picture Barbara
had made running toward him. It seemed to him that he could still feel
her in his arms, and a great regret that she distrusted him assailed him.

He had sat for a long time on the threshold of the bunkhouse door, and
after a time he noted that the moon was swimming high, almost overhead.
He got up, unhurriedly, and again walked to the stable door, looking in
at Purgatory. For Harlan did not intend to sleep tonight; he had
resolved, since the Rancho Seco seemed to be deserted except for his and
Barbara's presence, to guard the ranchhouse.

For he knew that the passions of Deveny for the girl were thoroughly
aroused. He had seen in Deveny's eyes there in Lamo a flame--when Deveny
looked at Barbara--that told him more about the man's passions than
Deveny himself suspected. He grinned coldly as he leaned easily against
the stable door; for men of the Deveny type always aroused him--their
personality had always seemed to strike discord into his soul; had always
fanned into flame the smoldering hatred he had of such men; had always
brought into his heart those savage impulses which he had sometimes felt
when he was on the verge of yielding to the urge to become what men had
thought him--and what they still thought him--a conscienceless killer.

His smile now was bitter with the hatred that was in his heart for
Deveny--for Deveny had cast longing, lustful eyes upon Barbara
Morgan--and the smile grew into a sneer as he drew out paper and tobacco
and began to roll a cigarette.

But as he rolled the cigarette his fingers stiffened; the paper and the
tobacco in it dropped into the dust at his feet; and he stiffened, his
lips straightening, his eyes flaming with rage, his muscles tensing.

For a horseman had appeared from out of the moonlit haze beyond the
river. Rigid in the doorway--standing back a little so that he might not
be seen--Harlan watched the man.

The latter brought his horse to a halt when he reached the far corner of
the ranchhouse, dismounted, and stole stealthily along the wall of the
building.

Harlan was not more than a hundred feet distant, and the glare of the
moonlight shining full on the man as he paused before the door into which
Barbara Morgan had gone, revealed him plainly to Harlan.

The man was Meeder Lawson. Harlan's lips wreathed into a grin of cold
contempt. He stepped quickly to Purgatory, drew his rifle from its saddle
sheath and returned to the doorway. And there, standing in the shadows,
he watched Lawson as the latter tried the door and, failing to open it,
left it and crept along the wall of the building, going toward a window.

The window also was fastened, it seemed, for Lawson stole away from it
after a time and continued along the wall of the house until he reached
the southeast corner. Around that, after a fleeting glance about him,
Lawson vanished.

Still grinning--though there was now a quality in the grin that might
have warned Lawson, had he seen it--Harlan stepped down from the doorway,
slipped into the shadow of the corral fence, and made his way toward the
corner where Lawson had disappeared.



CHAPTER XI

THE INTRUDER


After closing the door through which she had entered, Barbara Morgan
slipped the fastenings into place and stood, an ear pressed against the
door, listening for sounds that would tell her Harlan had followed her.
But beyond the door all was silence.

Breathing fast, yielding to the panic of fear that had seized her, over
the odd light she had seen in Harlan's eyes--a gleam, that to her, seemed
to have been a reflection of some evil passion in the man's heart--she
ran through the dark room she had entered, opened a door that led to the
_patio_, and peered fearfully outward, as though she half expected to see
Harlan there.

But the court was deserted, apparently, though there were somber shadows
ranging the enclosing walls that would afford concealment for Harlan, had
he succeeded in gaining entrance. As she stepped out of the doorway she
peered intently around.

Then, further frightened by the brooding silence that seemed to envelop
the place, and tortured by tragic thoughts in which her father occupied a
prominent position--almost crazed by the memory of what had happened
during the preceding twenty-four hours--she fled across the _patio_
swiftly, her terror growing with each step.

She knew the house thoroughly; she could have found her way in complete
darkness; and when she reached the opposite side of the court she almost
threw herself at a door which, she knew, opened into the big room in
which she and her father had usually passed their leisure.

Entering, she closed the door, and barred it. Then, feeling more secure,
she stood for an instant in the center of the room, gazing about,
afflicted with an appalling sense of loss, of loneliness, and of
helplessness.

For this was the first time she had entered the house since the news of
her father's death had reached her; and she missed him, feeling more
keenly than ever the grief she had endured thus far with a certain stoic
calm; yielding to the tears that had been very close for hours.

She did not light the kerosene lamp that stood on a big center table in
the room. For there was light enough for her to see objects around her;
and she went at last to an arm-chair which had been her father's
favorite, knelt beside it, and sobbed convulsively.

Later, yielding to a dull apathy which had stolen over her, she made her
way upstairs, to her room--which was directly over the front entrance to
the _patio_--and sank into a chair beside one of the windows.

She had locked her door after entering; and for the first time since
arriving at the Rancho Seco she felt comparatively safe.

Her thoughts were incoherent--a queer jumble of mental impulses which
seemed to lead her always back to the harrowing realization that she had
lost her father. That was the gigantic axis around which her whole mental
structure revolved. It was staggering, stupefying, and her brain reeled
under it.

Other thoughts came, flickered like feeble lights, and went out--thoughts
of what had happened to her at Lamo; a dull wonder over Meeder Lawson's
presence in town when he should have been with the men on the range;
speculation as to the whereabouts of the men--why none of them had
remained at the ranchhouse; and a sort of dumb, vague wonder over what
her future would be.

She thought, too, of John Haydon of the Star ranch--the big, smiling,
serene-eyed man who seemed to bring a breath of romance with him each
time he visited the Rancho Seco. Haydon would help her, she knew, and she
would go to him in the morning.

Her father had trusted Haydon, and she would trust him. Haydon was the
one man in the section who seemed to have no fear of Deveny and his
men--many times he had told her that most of the stories told of Deveny's
crimes were untrue--that he had not committed all those that were
attributed to him.

Not that Haydon condoned those offenses upon which Deveny stood convicted
by circumstantial evidence. Nor had Haydon ever sought to defend Deveny.
On the other hand, Haydon's condemnation of the outlaw and his men had
been vigorous--almost too vigorous for Haydon's safety, she had heard her
father say.

It was when her thoughts dwelt upon Harlan that she was most puzzled--and
impressed. For though she was acquainted with the man's reputation--knowing
him to be an outlaw of the reckless, dare-devil type--she felt the force of
him, the compelling originality of him--as he differed from the outlaw of
popular conception--his odd personality, which seemed to be a mingling of
the elements of character embracing both good and evil.

For though an outlaw himself, he had protected her from outlaws. And she
had seen in his eyes certain expressions that told her that he felt
impulses of sympathy and of tenderness. And his words to Deveny and
others had seemed to hint of a fairly high honorableness.

And though she had seen in his eyes a cold gleam that was convincing
evidence of the presence of those ruthless passions which had made him an
enemy of the law, she had also detected expressions in his eyes that told
plainly of genial humor, of gentleness, and of consideration for other
humans.

But whatever she had seen in him, she felt his force--the terrible power
of him when aroused. It was in the atmosphere that surrounded him; it was
in the steady gleam of his eyes, in the poise of his head, and in the
thrust of his jaw, all around him. She feared him, yet he fascinated
her--compelled her--seemed to insist that she consider him in her scheme
of life.

In fact, he had made it plain to her that he intended to be considered.
"I'm stayin' here," he had told her in his slow, deliberate way.

And that seemed to end it--she knew he _would_ stay; that he was
determined, and that nothing short of force would dissuade him. And what
force could she bring against him? A man whose name, mentioned in the
presence of other men, made their faces blanch.

Deep in her heart, though, lurked a conviction that Harlan had not told
her everything that had happened at Sentinel Rock. She was afflicted with
a suspicion that he was holding something back. She had seen that in his
eyes, too, she thought. It seemed to her that her father _might_ have
told him to come to the Rancho Seco, and to stay there. And for that
reason--because she suspected that Harlan had not told all he knew--she
felt that she ought not order him away. If only he had not looked at her
with that queer, insinuating smile!

She had sat at the window for, it seemed to her, many hours before she
became aware that the moon had risen and was directly overhead, flooding
the ground in the vicinity of the ranchhouse with a soft, silver
radiance.

She got up with a start, remembering that she had left Harlan standing
outside the door in the rear. She had almost forgotten that!

She went to a window that opened into the _patio_, and looked downward.
Every nook and corner of the _patio_ was visible now; the dark, somber
shadows had been driven away, and in the silvery flood that poured down
from above the enclosure was brilliant, clearly defined--and deserted.

And yet as the girl looked, a presentiment of evil assailed her,
whitening her cheeks and widening her eyes. The quiet peace and
tranquillity of the _patio_ seemed to mock her; she felt that it held a
sinister promise, a threat of dire things to come.

The feeling was so strong that it drove her back from the window to the
center of the room, where she stood, holding her breath, her hands
clasped in front of her, the fingers twining stiffly. It seemed to her
that she was waiting--waiting for something to happen--something that
threatened.

And when she heard a slight sound, seeming to arise from the room below
her, she caught her breath with a gasp of horror.

But she did not move. She stood there, with no breath issuing from
between her lips, for many minutes, it seemed--waiting, dreading, a cold
paralysis stealing over her.

And then again it came--an odd sound--slow, creaking, seeming to come
always nearer. It was not until she heard the sound directly outside her
door that she realized that what she heard was a step on the stairs. And
then, convinced that Harlan had gained entrance, she slipped noiselessly
across the room to the front wall, where she took down a heavy pistol
that hung from a wooden peg.

With the huge weapon in hand she returned to a point near the center of
the room, and with bated breath and glowing, determined eyes, faced the
door.

And when, after a time, she heard the door creak with a weight that
seemed to be against it--after she saw it give; heard the lock break, and
saw a man's form darken the opening as the door was flung wide--she
pressed the trigger of the weapon once--twice--three times--in rapid
succession.

She heard the man curse, saw him catch at his chest, and tumble headlong
toward her. And she fired again, thinking he was trying to grasp her.

She laughed hysterically when she saw him sink to the floor and stretch
out with a queer inertness. Then, swaying, her brain reeling with the
horror of the thing, she managed to get to the bed at the other side of
the room. When she reached it she collapsed gently, a long, convulsive
shudder running over her.



CHAPTER XII

BARBARA SEES A LIGHT


When Barbara regained consciousness it was with a gasp of horror over the
realization of what had happened. She stiffened immediately, however, and
lay, straining at the dread paralysis that had gripped her; for she saw
Harlan standing at her side, looking down into her face, his own set in a
grim smile.

She must have fainted again, for it seemed to her that a long period of
time elapsed until she again became conscious of her surroundings. Harlan
had moved off a little, though he was still watching her with the grimly
humorous expression.

She sat up, staring wildly at him; then shrank back, getting as far away
from him as she could.

"You!" she gasped, "You! Didn't I----"

He interrupted her, drawling his words a little:

"The guy you shot was Lawson. You bored him a heap. I've toted him
downstairs. He's plenty dead. It was plumb good shootin'--for a woman."

His words shocked her to action, and she got up and walked around the
foot of the bed, from where she could see the spot where the intruder
must have fallen after she had shot him. A dark stain showed on the floor
where the man had lain, and the sight of it sent her a step backward, so
that she struck the foot of the bed. She caught at the bed and grasped
one of the posts, holding tightly to it while she looked Harlan over with
dreading, incredulous eyes.

"It--it wasn't _you_!" she demanded. "Are you sure?"

He smiled and said, slowly and consolingly: "I reckon if you'd shot _me_
I'd be knowin' it. Don't take it so hard, ma'am. Why, if a man goes to
breakin' into a woman's room that way he sure ain't fit to go on livin'
in a world where there _is_ a woman."

"It was Lawson--you say? Meeder Lawson--the Rancho Seco foreman? I
thought--why, I thought it was you!"

"I'm thankin' you, ma'am," he said, ironically. "But if you'll just stick
your head out of that window, you'll see it was Lawson, right enough.
He's layin' right below the window."

She did as bidden, and she saw Lawson lying on the ground beneath the
window, flat on his back, his face turned upward with the radiant
moonlight shining full upon his wide-open, staring eyes.

Barbara glanced swiftly, and then drew back into the room, shuddering.

Harlan stood, silently regarding her, while she walked again to the bed
and sat upon it, staring out into the flood of moonlight, her face
ghastly, her hands hanging limply at her sides.

She had killed a man. And though there was justification for the deed,
she could not fight down the shivering horror that had seized her, the
overpowering and terrible knowledge that she had taken human life.

She sat on the edge of the bed for a long time, and Harlan said no word
to her, standing motionless, his arms folded, one hand slowly caressing
his chin, as he watched her.

After a time, drawing a long, shuddering breath, she looked up at him.

"How did you know--what made you come--here?" she asked.

"I wasn't reckonin' to sleep tonight--havin' thoughts--about things," he
said. "I was puttin' in a heap of my time settin' in the doorway of the
bunkhouse, wonderin' what had made you so scared of me. While I was
tryin' to figure it out I saw Lawson comin'. There was somethin' in his
actions which didn't jibe with my ideas of square dealin', an' so I kept
lookin' at him. An' when I saw him prowlin' around, tryin' to open doors
an' windows, why, I just naturally trailed him. An' I found the window he
opened. I reckon that's all."

She got up, swaying a little, a wan smile on her face that reflected her
astonishment and wonder over the way she had jumbled things. For this
man--the man she had feared when she had left him standing outside the
door some hours before--had been eager to protect her from the other, who
had attacked her. He had been waiting, watching.

Moreover, there was in Harlan's eyes as he stood in the room a
considerate, deferential gleam that told her more than words could have
conveyed to her--a something that convinced her that he was not the type
of man she had thought him.

The knowledge filled her with a strange delight. There was relief in her
eyes, and her voice was almost steady when she again spoke to him:

"Harlan," she said, "did father really send you here? Did he make you
promise to come?"

"I reckon he did, ma'am," he said.

For an instant she looked fairly at him, intently searching his eyes for
indications of untruthfulness. Then she drew a long breath of conviction.

"I believe you," she said.

Harlan swept his hat from his head. He bowed, and there was an odd leap
in his voice:

"That tickles me a heap, ma'am. I don't know when I've heard anything
that pleased me more."

He backed away from her until he reached the doorway. And she saw his
eyes--wide and eloquent--even in the subdued light of the doorway.

"I'd go to sleep now, ma'am, if I was you. You need it a heap. It's been
a long day for you--an' things ain't gone just right. I don't reckon
there'll be anybody botherin' you any more tonight."

"And you?" she asked, "won't you try to get some sleep, too?"

He laughed, telling her that he would "ketch a wink or two." Then he
turned and went down the stairs--she could hear him as he opened a lower
door and went out.

Looking out of the window an instant later, she saw him taking Lawson's
body away. And still later, hearing a sound outside, she stole to the
window again.

Below, seated on the threshold of the door that led into the room she had
entered when she had crossed the _patio_, she saw Harlan. He was smoking
a cigarette, leaning against the door jamb in an attitude of complete
relaxation.

There was something in his manner that comforted her--a calm confidence,
a slow ease of movement as he fingered his cigarette that indicated
perfect tranquility--an atmosphere of peace that could not have
surrounded him had he meditated any evil whatever.

She knew, now, that she had misjudged him. For he had made no attempt to
take advantage of her loneliness and helplessness. And whatever his
reputation--whatever the crimes he had committed against the laws--he had
been a gentleman in his attitude toward her. That feature of his conduct
dominated her thoughts as she stretched out on the bed; it was her last
coherent thought as she went to sleep.



CHAPTER XIII

HARLAN TAKES CHARGE


Barbara could not have told why she had not acted upon her determination
to ride westward to the Star ranch to acquaint John Haydon with the
predicament into which the events of the past few hours had plunged her.
She could not have explained why she permitted the first day--after
Harlan's coming--to pass without going to see Haydon, any more than she
could have explained why she permitted many other days to pass in the
same manner.

She was almost convinced, though, that it was because of the manner in
which Harlan took charge of the ranch--the capable and business-like way
he had of treating the men.

For the outfit came in late in the afternoon following the night which
had marked the death of Lawson--the straw-boss explaining that he had
received explicit orders from Lawson to "work" a grass level several
miles down the river.

One other reason for Barbara's failure to ride to the Star--a reason that
she did not permit to dwell prominently in her thoughts--was resentment.

She had permitted the first day to pass without going to see Haydon. But
when it had gone and another day dawned without Haydon coming to see
_her_, she felt that he was deliberately absenting himself. For certainly
he must have heard what had happened, and if he thought as much of her as
he had led her to believe he would have come to her instantly.

Had Haydon seen the defiant gleam of her eyes when she gazed westward--in
the direction of the Star--he might have realized that each day he stayed
away from the Rancho Seco would make it that much more difficult for him
to explain.

Barbara stayed indoors much of the time during the first days of Harlan's
control of the ranch, but from the windows she saw him--noted that the
men obeyed him promptly and without question.

A sense of loss, of emptiness, still afflicted the girl, and yet through
it all there ran a thrill of satisfaction, of assurance that the
steady-eyed man who had saved her from Deveny, and who had treated her
like a courtier of old on the night she had killed Lawson, seemed to have
her welfare in mind, seemed--despite the reputation the people of the
country had given him--to have constituted himself her guardian, without
expectation of reward of the kind she had feared he sought.

Harlan's method of assuming control of the Rancho Seco had been direct
and simple. When the twenty-seven men of the outfit had straggled into
the yard surrounding the big corral--the chuck-wagon, bearing the cook
and his assistant, trailing a little behind, and followed by the horses
of the _remuda_ with the wrangler hurling vitriolic language in the
rear--Harlan was standing beside Purgatory near the corral fence in front
of one of the bunkhouses.

He had paid--apparently--no attention to the men as they dismounted,
unsaddled, and turned their horses into the corral, and he did not even
look at the belligerent-eyed cook whose sardonic glance roved over him.

But the men of the outfit watched him out of the corners of their eyes;
as they passed him to go to the bunkhouses, they shot inquiring,
speculating glances at one another, full of curiosity, not unmixed with
astonishment over his continued silence.

It was when, drawn by the wonder that consumed them, they gathered in a
group near the door of one of the bunkhouses, that Harlan moved toward
them.

For he had noted that they had become grouped, and that into the
atmosphere had come a tension.

Harlan's actions had been governed by design. His continued silence had
been strategy of a subtle order. It had attracted the attention of the
men, it had intrigued their interest.

If he had spoken to them while they had been moving about on their
different errands, telling them that henceforth he was to manage the
Rancho Seco, they would have given him scant attention. Also, he would
not have been able to study their faces as he had studied them while they
had been watching him, and he would not have gained the knowledge of
their characters that he now possessed.

Besides, a humorous malice possessed Harlan--he wanted to view them
collectively when he gave them his news, to note the various ways in
which they would receive it.

Absolute silence greeted Harlan's forward movement. He could hear the
labored breathing of some of the men--men of violent temper who sensed
trouble--and his grin grew broad as he halted within a dozen feet of the
group.

"Boys," he said, slowly, "you've got a new boss. It's me. A day or so
ago, crossin' from Pardo, I run into a ruckus at Sentinel Rock. Lane
Morgan was the center of the ruckus--an' he got perforated--plenty. But
before he cashed in he got a gleam of downright sense an' told me he'd
been lookin' for me, to make me manager of the Rancho Seco.

"I'm reckonin' to be manager--beginnin' now. If there's any of you men
that ain't admirin' to do the jumpin' when I yap orders to you, you're
doin' your gassin' right now. Them that's pinin' to work under me is sure
of a square deal, beginnin' now, and continuin' henceforth. I reckon
that's all."

Into Harlan's eyes as he talked had come that vacuous light that had been
in them when he had faced Deveny's men in Lamo--the light that was always
in his eyes whenever he faced more than one man, with trouble imminent.

He saw the face of every man in the group--while seeming not to be
looking at any of them. He noted the various shades of expression that
came into their faces as they digested his words, he saw how some of them
watched him with sober interest and how others permitted themselves a
sneer of incredulity or dislike.

He noted that a tall, slender, swarthy man on the extreme left of the
group watched him with a malevolent gaze, his eyes flaming hate; he saw a
black-haired, hook-nosed fellow near the center of the group watching him
with a grin of cold contempt.

It seemed to Harlan that a fair proportion of the men were willing to
acknowledge his authority--for they were frankly studying him, ready to
greet him as their employer. Many others, however, were as frankly
hostile.

After Harlan ceased speaking there came a short silence, during which
many of the men looked at one another inquiringly.

It was a moment during which, had a leader appeared to take the
initiative for those who intended to dissent from Harlan's rule, the
outfit might have been divided.

Evidently the tall, swarthy man divined that the time to dissent had
come, for he cleared his throat, and grinned felinely.

Before he could speak, however, a short man with keen eyes that, since
the instant they had rested upon Harlan, had been glowing with something
that might have been defined as mingled astonishment and delight thinly
concealed by a veneer of humor--said distinctly:

"You crossed over from Pardo--you say?"

Harlan nodded, and a pin-point of recognition glowed in his eyes as he
looked at the man.

The other laughed, lowly. "Seems I know you," he said. "You're 'Drag'
Harlan!"

A tremor ran through the group. There was a concerted stiffening of
bodies, a general sigh from lungs in process of deflation. And then the
group stood silent, every man watching Harlan with that intent curiosity
that comes with one's first glimpse of a noted character, introduced
without expectation.

Harlan noted that a change had come over the men. Those whose faces had
betrayed their inclination to accept his authority had taken--without
exception--a glum, disappointed expression. On the other hand, those who
had formerly betrayed hostility, were now grinning with satisfaction.

A tremor of malicious amusement, expressed visibly by a flicker of his
eyelids, was Harlan's only emotion over the change that had come in the
men of the group. He could now have selected those of the men who--as
Lane Morgan had said--could not be trusted, and he could have pointed out
those who had been loyal to Morgan, and who would be loyal to Barbara and
himself.

Among the former were the tall, swarthy man on the extreme left, and the
hook-nosed fellow near the center. There were perhaps ten of the latter,
and it was plain to Harlan that the short man who had spoken was their
leader.

"'Drag' Harlan--eh?"

This was the tall, swarthy man. The malevolence had gone from his eyes,
he was grinning broadly, though there was respect of a fawning character
in his manner as he stepped out from the group and halted within a few
feet of Harlan.

"Me an' my friends wasn't none tickled to find that we was goin' to have
a new manager. We was sort of expectin' Miss Barbara to do the runnin'
herself. But if _you_ say you're runnin' things, that makes it a whole
lot different. We ain't buckin' 'Drag' Harlan's game."

"Thank you," grinned Harlan. "I saw you reportin' to Miss Morgan. You're
straw-boss, I reckon."

"You've hit it. I'm Stroud--Lafe Stroud."

"You'll keep on bein' straw-boss," said Harlan, shortly. "I'm appointin'
a foreman."

"Where's Lawson?"

It was Stroud who spoke. There was a shadow of disappointment in his
eyes.

"Lawson won't be needin' a title any more," said Harlan, narrowing his
eyes at the other. "He needs plantin'. Soon as we get set some of you
boys can go over an' take care of him. You'll find him in the harness
shop. He busted down the door of Miss Barbara's room last night, an' she
made a colander out of him."

Harlan ignored the effect of his news on the men, fixing his gaze on the
short man who had spoken first, and who was now standing silent, in an
attitude that hinted of dejection.

"You'll be foreman, Linton," he stated shortly.

Linton, who had been glumly listening, was so startled by the sudden
descent upon his shoulders of the mantle of authority that he
straightened with a snap and grabbed wildly at his hat--which dropped
from his head despite his effort to clutch it, revealing a mop of fiery
red hair. When he straightened, after recovering the hat, his freckled
face was crimson with embarrassment and astonishment.

"I'm obliged to you," he mumbled.

That had ended it. The following morning Linton came to Harlan for
orders, and a little later the entire outfit, headed by Stroud, and
trailed by the chuck-wagon and the horses of the _remuda_, started
southward to a distant section of the big level, leaving Linton and
Harlan at the ranchhouse.

And as the outfit faded into the southern distance, Harlan, walking near
the larger of the two bunkhouses, came upon Linton.

Harlan grinned when he saw the other.

"You didn't go with the outfit, Red?" he said. "Seems a foreman ought to
be mighty eager to be with his men on their first trip after he's
appointed."

Linton's face was pale, his gaze was direct.

"Look here, Harlan," he said, steadily. "I've knowed you a long time, an'
I know that you're a damn' sight straighter than a lot of men which has
got reputations better than yourn. But there's some things want
explainin'. I've sort of took a shine to that little girl in there.
There's things brewin' which is goin' to make it mighty bad for her. It
wasn't so bad while old Morgan was here, but now he's gone, an' she's got
to play it a lone hand.

"You git riled an' sling your gun on me if you want to. I know I wouldn't
have a chance. But just the same, I'm tellin' you. You know that more'n
half that outfit you've put me at the head of is Deveny's men--sneakin',
thievin', murderin' outlaws?"

"You wantin' to quit, Red?" said Harlan, smoothly.

"Quit! Hell's fire! I'm hangin' on to the finish. But I'm findin' out
where you stand. What you meanin' to do with Barbara Morgan?"

Harlan grinned. "I answered that question when I appointed you foreman,
Red. But I reckon I made a mistake--I ought to have appointed a man who
knows what his think-box is for."

Linton flushed, and peered intently at the other.

"Meanin' that you're backin' Barbara in this here deal?" he demanded.

"A real thoughtful man would have tumbled to it quicker," was Harlan's
soft, ironical reply.

For an instant Linton's gaze was intense with searching, probing inquiry.
And Harlan's steady eyes were agleam with a light that was so quietly
honest that it made Linton gasp:

"Damn me! You mean it! You're playin' 'em straight, face up. That talk of
yourn about Lane Morgan makin' you manager was straight goods. I know
Dolver an' Laskar an' the guy they call 'Chief' plugged Morgan--for I
heard Stroud an' some more of them talkin' about it. An' I heard that you
got Dolver an' Laskar, an' kept Deveny from grabbin' off Barbara Morgan,
over in Lamo. But I thought you was playin' for Barbara, too--an' I
wasn't figurin' on lettin' you."

Harlan laughed lowly.

"Things don't always shape up the way a man thinks they will, Red. I
started for Lamo, figurin' to salivate Dolver an' the other guy who
killed Davey Langan. I got Dolver at Sentinel Rock, an' I figured I'd be
likely to run into the other guy somewheres--mebbe findin' him in
Deveny's gang. But runnin' into Lane Morgan sort of changed the deal. An'
now I'm postponin' a lot of things until Barbara Morgan is runnin' free,
with no coyotes from the Deveny crowd tryin' to rope her."

Linton's eyes were glowing, he crowded close to Harlan, so close that his
body touched Harlan's, and he stood thus for an instant, breathing fast.
Then, noting the unwavering, genial gleam in Harlan's eyes--a visible
sign of Harlan's knowledge of his deep emotion--Linton seized one of the
other's hands and gripped it tightly.

"Damn your hide," he said, lowly, "you had me goin'. I'm dead set on
seein' that girl git a square deal, an' when I saw you makin' a play for
them damned outlaws that are in the outfit, I sure figured there'd be
hell a-poppin' around the Rancho Seco. You sure had me flabbergasted when
you named me foreman, for I couldn't anticipate your trail none.

"But I reckon I'm wised up, now. You're goin' to run a whizzer in on
'em--playin' 'em for suckers. An' I'm your right-hand man--stickin' with
you until hell runs long on icebergs!"



CHAPTER XIV

SHADOWS


A desire to ride once more in the peaceful sunshine of the land she loved
was one of the first indications that Barbara was recovering from the
shock occasioned by her father's death. For two or three days she had not
stirred from her room, except to go downstairs to cook her meals. She had
spent much of her time sitting at a window nursing her sorrow.

But on this morning she got out of bed feeling more composed than usual,
with several new emotions struggling for the mastery. One of those
emotions was that of intolerance.

Harlan's assumption of authority enraged her. He had come to the Rancho
Seco with no credentials other than his mere word that her father had
forced him to promise to "take hold" of "things." And she intended, this
very morning, to send Harlan away, and to assume control of the ranch
herself.

This determination held until after she had breakfasted, and then she
stood for a long time in the kitchen door, looking out into the brilliant
sunshine, afflicted with a strange indecision.

Harlan _had_ helped to fill the void created by her father's death--that
was certain. There had been something satisfying in his presence at the
ranch; it had seemed to mean an assurance for her safety; she had felt
almost as fully protected as when her father had been with her. It
angered her to see him moving about the place as though he had a perfect
right to be there, but at the same time she felt comfortably certain that
as long as he was around no harm could come to her.

Her emotions were so contradictory that she could not reach a decision
regarding the action she should take and she bit her lips with vexation
as she stood in the doorway.

Later, her cheeks a little flushed with the realization that she was
surrendering to an emotion that she could not understand--but which, she
decided guiltily, her face crimson, had its inception in a conviction
that she would regret seeing Harlan ride away, to return no more--she
went to the corral, roped her pony, threw saddle and bridle on it,
mounted the animal, and rode away--westward.

She had not traveled more than half a mile when she heard the rapid
beating of hoofs behind her. Glancing swiftly backward, she saw Purgatory
coming, Harlan in the saddle, smoking a cigarette.

Her pulses leaped, unaccountably, and the crimson flush again stained her
cheeks; but she sat rigid in the saddle, and looked straight ahead,
pretending she had not discovered the presence of horse and rider behind
her.

She rode another half mile before the flush died out of her cheeks. And
then, responding to a swift indignation, she brought Billy to a halt,
wheeled him, and sat motionless in the saddle, her face pale, her eyes
flashing.

With apparent unconcern Harlan rode toward her. The big black horse did
not change his pace, nor did Harlan change expression. It seemed to the
girl that in both horse and rider were a steadfastness of purpose that
nothing could change. And despite her indignation, she felt a thrill of
admiration for both man and horse.

Yet her eyes were still flashing ominously when Harlan rode to within a
dozen paces of her and brought the big black to a halt.

There was an expression of grave respect on Harlan's face; but she saw a
lurking devil in his eyes--a gleam of steady, quizzical humor--that made
her yearn to use her quirt on him. For by that gleam she knew he had
purposely followed her; that he expected her to be angry with him for
doing so. And the gleam also told her that he had determined to bear with
her anger.

"Well?" she inquired, icily.

"Good mornin', ma'am." He bowed to her, sweeping his broad-brimmed hat
from his head with, it seemed to her, an ironical flourish.

"Is there something you want to speak to me about?" she asked, her chin
elevated, disdain in her eyes. She assured herself that when he glanced
at her as he was doing at this instant, she positively hated him. She
wondered why she had tolerated his presence.

"I wasn't havin' any thoughts about speakin' to you, ma'am. Kind of a
nice mornin' for a ride, ain't it?"

"If one rides alone," she returned, significantly.

"I enjoy ridin' a whole lot better when I've got company," he stated,
gravely, with equal significance.

"Meaning that you have made up your mind to ride with me, I suppose?" she
said coldly.

"You've hit it, ma'am."

"Well," she declared, her voice quivering with passion; "I don't want you
to ride with me. You came here and usurped whatever power and authority
there is; and you are running the Rancho Seco as though it belongs to
you. But you shan't ride with me--I don't want you to!"

Had she been standing she must have stamped one foot on the ground, so
vehement was her manner. And the flashing scorn of her eyes should have
been enough to discourage most men.

But not Harlan. His eyelids flickered with some emotion; and his
eyes--she noted now, even though she could have killed him for his
maddening insistence--were blue, and rimmed by heavy lashes that sun and
sand had bleached until the natural brown of them threatened to become a
light tan.

She studied him, even while hating him for she saw the force of him--felt
it. And though she was thinking spiteful things of him, she found that
she was forming a new impression of him--of his character, his
appearance, and of the motives that controlled him.

And she thought she knew why men avoided having trouble with him. She
told herself that if she were a man and she were facing him with violence
in her heart, she would consider seriously before she betrayed it to him.
For in his eyes, in the lips, in the thrust of his chin--even in the
atmosphere that surrounded him at this instant, was a threat, an unspoken
promise, lingering and dormant, of complete readiness--almost eagerness,
she was convinced--for violence.

She drew a sharp breath as she watched him. And when she saw his lips
curving into a slight smile--wholesome, though grave; with a hint of
boyish amusement in them--she got another quick impression of his
character, new and startling and illuminating.

For behind the hard, unyielding exterior that he presented to men; back
of the promise and the threat of violence, was the impulsiveness and the
gentleness that would have ruled him had not the stern necessity of
self-preservation forced him to conceal them.

The smile disarmed her. It _did_ seem ludicrous--that she should try to
force this man to do anything he did not want to do. And she had known
that he would not obey her, and ride back to the ranchhouse; she was
convinced that she must either go back or suffer him to follow her as he
pleased.

And she was determined not to give up her ride. She was determined to be
very haughty about it, though; but when she wheeled Billy, to head him
again into the western distance, her eyes twinkled her surrender, and her
lips trembled on the verge of a defiant smile.

Then Billy felt the quirt on his flank; he snorted with astonishment and
disgust, and charged forward, tossing his head intolerantly.

Looking sidelong, after Billy had traveled two or three hundred yards,
Barbara observed that the big black horse was not more than half a dozen
steps behind. And curiously, Barbara again experienced that comfortable
assurance of protection, and of satisfaction over the nearness of Harlan.

Moved by an entirely unaccountable impulse, she drew the reins slightly
on Billy, slowing him, almost imperceptibly, so that both horses had
traveled more than a quarter of a mile before the distance between them
lessened noticeably.

And then, with an impatience that caused her cheeks to glow, Barbara
noted that Purgatory had slowed also, Harlan seemingly accommodating the
animal's pace to her own. It was plain to see that Harlan did not intend
to assume that she had relented.

For another quarter of a mile the distance remained the same, and the
silence was unbroken except by the rhythmical beating of hoofs through
the rustling, matted mesquite.

Then Barbara, yielding to an impulse of righteous anger, brought on by
Harlan's obvious intention to remain at a respectful distance,
deliberately brought Billy to a walk and waited until Harlan rode beside
her.

"You don't need to be a brute--even if I did tell you to go back to the
ranchhouse!"

"Meanin' what, ma'am? Why, I don't remember to have done anything. I was
doin' a heap of thinkin' just now--if that's what you mean."

"Thinking mean things of me--I suppose--for what I said to you."

He had been thinking of her--seriously. And his thoughts were far from
fickle as he watched her now, riding within a few feet of him, her
profile toward him, her head having a rigid set, her chin held high, her
lips tight-pressed, and her hair drooping in graceful coils over her
ears, and bulging in alluring disorder at the nape of her neck.

He was thinking that he had braved, to answer a mere whim, greater
dangers than he would be likely to meet in defending her from the
wolf-pack which circumstances had set upon her. He was thinking that
heretofore his life had been lived without regard to order or
system--that he had led a will-o'-the-wisp existence, never knowing that
such women as she graced the world. He was thinking of what might have
happened to her had not Davey Langan been killed, and if he had not
started out to avenge him.

Into his thoughts at this minute flashed a mental picture that paled his
face and brought his lips into straight, hard lines--a picture of Barbara
at the mercy of Deveny.

With a quick turn he brought Purgatory around in front of Billy, blocking
the animal's further progress westward. The girl started at the rapid
movement, and watched him fearfully, dreading--she knew not what.

But his smile--grim and mirthless though it was--partially reassured her,
and she sat silent, looking at him as he spoke, rapidly, earnestly.

"I was thinkin' of you; an' I wasn't thinkin' mean things--about you. I
was thinkin' of Deveny--an' of what your dad told me over there by
Sentinel Rock.

"Your dad told me that you was in danger--that Deveny an' Strom Rogers
an' some more of them had their eyes turned on you. Your dad made me
promise that I'd come here an' look out for you--an' I mean to do it.
That's why I went to Lamo when I had no call to go there an' that's why I
brought Deveny to a show-down in front of you.

"There's somethin' goin' on around here that ain't showin' on the
surface--somethin' that's hidden an' sneakin'. You heard some of them
guys in Lamo gassin' about the 'Chief' bein' one of the three that sent
your dad over the Divide.

"Well, your dad told me that, too--that there was three of them pitched
onto him. It was the fellow they call Chief that shot your dad while he
was sleepin'--when it was too dark for your dad to see his face. Your dad
made me promise to hunt that guy up an' square things for him. That's
what I'm here for. Anyway, it's one reason I'm here. The other reason is
that I'm goin' to see that you get a square deal from them guys.

"An' you won't get a square deal ridin' out alone, like this--especially
when you head toward Sunset Trail, where Deveny an' his gang hang out.
An' I'm settin' down hard on you ridin' that way. I'm keepin' you from
runnin' any chances."

Silently Barbara had watched Harlan's face while he had been talking.
There was no doubt that he was in earnest, and there was likewise no
doubt that he was concerned for her safety. But why? It seemed absurd
that Harlan, an outlaw himself, should protect her from other outlaws.
Yet in Lamo he had done just that.

Behind his actions, his expressed concern for her, must be a motive. What
was it? Was it possible that he was doing this thing unselfishly; that
the promise her father had exacted from him had changed him; that in his
heart at this instant dwelt those finer impulses which must be dormant in
all men, however bad?

The light of that great inquiry was in her eyes; they searched his face
for subtlety and craft and cunning--for something that would give her a
clue to his thoughts. And when she could find in his expression only a
grave concern she pulled Billy around and started him back toward the
ranchhouse.

They had not ridden more than a hundred yards before she stole a glance
at Harlan.

He was now riding beside her, looking straight ahead, his face
expressionless. Had he betrayed the slightest sign of triumph she would
have changed her mind about going back to the ranchhouse with him.

As it was, she felt a pulse of rage over her readiness in yielding to his
orders. Yet the rage was softened by a lurking, stealthy joy she got out
of his masterfulness.

"I presume I may ride in another direction--east, for instance--or north,
or south?"

He apparently took no notice of the mockery in her voice.

"You'll not be ridin' alone, anywhere," he declared.

"Oh!" she returned, raising her chin and looking at him with a cold scorn
that, she thought, would embarrass him; "I am to have a guardian."

He looked straight back to her, steadily, seemingly unaffected by the
hostility of her gaze.

"It amounts to that. But mebbe I wouldn't put it just that way.
Somebody's got to look out for you--to see that you don't go to rushin'
into trouble. There was trouble over in Lamo--if you'll remember."

And now he smiled gravely at her, and her face reddened over the memory
of the incident. She had been eager enough, then, to seek his protection;
she had trusted him.

"That wasn't your fault," he went on gently. "You didn't know then,
mebbe, just what kind of a guy Deveny is. But you know now, an' it
_would_ be your fault if you run into him again."

He saw how she took it--how her color came and went, and how her eyes
drooped from his. He smiled soberly.

"Looks to me that you've got to pin your faith to a mighty small chance,
ma'am."

"What chance?" She looked at him in startled wonderment, for it had not
occurred to her that she faced any real danger, despite the threatening
attitude of Deveny, and her isolation. For the great, peaceful world, and
the swimming sunlight were full of the promise of the triumph of right
and virtue; and the sturdy self-reliance of youth was in her heart.

"What chance?" she repeated, watching him keenly.

"The chance that me an' Red Linton will be able to get things into shape
to look out for you." He was gravely serious.

"It must seem a mighty slim chance to you--me comin' here with a
reputation that ain't any too good, an' Linton, with his red head an' his
freckles. Seems like a woman would go all wrong, pinnin' her faith to red
hair an' freckles an' a hell-raisin' outlaw. But there's been worse
combinations, ma'am--if I do say it myself. An' me an' Red is figurin' to
come through, no matter what you think of us."

"Red Linton?" she said. "That is the little, short, red-haired man you
put in Lawson's place, isn't it? I have never noticed him--particularly.
It seems that I have always thought him rather unimportant."

Harlan grinned. "That's a trick Red's got--seemin' unimportant. Red
spends a heap of his time not sayin' anything, an' hangin' around lookin'
like he's been misplaced. But when there's any trouble, you'll find Red
like the banty rooster that's figurin' to rule the roost.

"I knowed him over in Pardo, ma'am--he rode for the T Down for two or
three seasons."

"You are anticipating trouble--with Deveny?" she asked, a tremor in her
voice.

"There ain't any use of tryin' to hide it, ma'am. Mebbe your dad thought
you'd be better off by him not mentionin' it to you. But I've got a
different idea. Anyone--man or woman--knows a heap more about how to go
about things if they're sort of able to anticipate trouble. Your dad told
me things was in a mixup over here with Deveny an' some more of his kind;
an' I ain't aimin' to let you go ramblin' around in the dark.

"About half the Rancho Seco men belong to Deveny's gang, Linton says.
That's why I put Linton in Lawson's place; an' that's why I'm askin' you
to stick pretty close to the Rancho Seco, an' requestin' you not to go
rummagin' around the country."

She rode on silently, her face pale, digesting this disquieting news. She
remembered now that her father _had_ seemed rather worried at times, and
that upon several occasions he had hinted that he was distrustful of some
of the Rancho Seco men. But as Harlan had said, he had never taken her
completely into his confidence--no doubt because he had not wanted her to
worry. That was very like her father--always making life easy for her.

However, covertly watching Harlan, she was conscious of an emotion that
the latter did not suspect. The emotion was confidence--not in Harlan,
for, though she had seen that he, apparently, was eager to become her
champion, she could not forget that he, too, was an outlaw, with no proof
that he had been sent to the Rancho Seco by her father; with nothing but
his actions to convince her that his motives were founded upon
consideration for her welfare.

She thought of John Haydon as she rode beside Harlan; and it was
confidence in him that was expressed in her glances at Harlan; she was
convinced that she did not have to depend entirely upon Harlan. And when,
as they neared the ranchhouse, and she saw a big gray horse standing near
the entrance to the _patio_, her face reddened and her eyes grew
brilliant with a light that drew a cold smile to Harlan's face.

"That will be John Haydon's horse, I reckon," he said slowly.

"Why," she returned, startled; "how did you know?"

He rode on, not replying. When they reached the ranchhouse, Harlan loped
Purgatory toward one of the bunkhouses, in front of which he saw Red
Linton standing. Barbara directed Billy to the _patio_ entrance, and
dismounted, her face flushed, to meet a man who came out of the open
gateway to greet her, his face wreathed in a delighted smile.



CHAPTER XV

LINKED


"So you came at last?"

Barbara had some difficulty in keeping resentment prominent in her voice
as she faced John Haydon, for other emotions were clamoring within
her--joy because Haydon _had_ come, even though tardily; self-reproach
because she saw in Haydon's eyes a glowing anxiety and sympathy that
looked as though they were of recent birth.

There was repressed excitement in Haydon's manner; it was as though he
had only just heard of the girl's affliction and had ridden hard to come
to her.

She was sure of the sincerity in his voice when he grasped her hands
tightly and said:

"At last, Barbara! I heard it only this morning, and I have nearly killed
my horse getting over here! Look at him!"

The gray horse certainly did have the appearance of having been ridden
hard. He stood, his legs braced, his head drooping, his muzzle and chest
flecked with foam. Barbara murmured pityingly as she stroked the beast's
neck; and there was quick forgiveness in her eyes when she again looked
at Haydon.

Haydon was big--fully as tall as Harlan, and broader. His shoulders
bulged the blue flannel shirt he wore; and it was drawn into folds at his
slim waist, where a cartridge-studded belt encircled him, sagging at the
right hip with the weight of a heavy pistol.

He wore a plain gray silk handkerchief at his throat; it sagged at the
front, revealing a muscular development that had excited the envious
admiration of men. His hair was coal-black, wavy and abundant--though he
wore it short--with design, it seemed, for he must have known that it
gave him an alert, virile appearance.

His face, despite the tan upon it, and the little wrinkles brought by the
sun and wind, had a clear, healthy color, and his eyes black as his hair,
had a keen glint behind which lurked humor of a quality not to be
determined at a glance--it was changeable, fleeting, mysterious.

Barbara was silent. The steady courage that had sustained her until this
instant threatened to fail her in the presence of this big, sympathetic
man who seemed, to her, to embody that romance for which she had always
longed. She looked at him, her lips trembling with emotion.

Until now she had had no confidant--no one she could be sure of. And so,
with Haydon standing close to her, though not too close--for he had never
been able to achieve that intimacy for which he had yearned--she told him
what had happened, including details of her father's death, as related to
her by Harlan; finishing by describing the incident with Deveny in Lamo
(at which Haydon muttered a threat) and the subsequent coming of Harlan
to the Rancho Seco, together with the story of his assumption of
authority.

When she concluded Haydon laid a sympathetic hand on her shoulder.

"It's too bad, Barbara. And on top of it all, Lawson had to play the
beast, too, eh? Why didn't you send someone to me?"

"There was no one to send." Her voice threatened to break, despite the
brave gleam that flashed through the moisture in her eyes. "Lawson had
sent the men away; and when they came in Harlan took charge of them.
And--besides," she admitted, dropping her gaze, "I--I thought you ought
to--I thought you would----"

He shook her, reprovingly, laughing deeply as he led her through the
gateway into the _patio_, where they sat on a bench for a long time,
talking, while the aspect of the _patio_ began to change, becoming again
a place of cheerfulness flooded with the soft, radiant light of returning
happiness--reflected in her eyes; while the sunlight streaming down into
the enclosure took on a brightness that made the girl's eyes glisten;
while the drab and empty days since her father's death began to slip back
into the limbo of memory--the sting and the sorrow of them removed. So
does the heart of youth respond to the nearness of romance.

They had been talking for half an hour when Barbara remembered that
Haydon had not expressed a desire to meet Harlan.

Haydon's face lost a little of its color as he replied to her suggestion
that they find the man.

But he laughed, rather mirthlessly, she thought.

"I intend to see him, Barbara--but alone. There are several things of
importance that I want to say to him--chiefly concerning his conduct
toward you."

He got up. Barbara rose also, and walked with him, outside the gate,
where he got on his horse, smiling down at her.

"Harlan was right about your riding out alone. I'd stay as close to the
ranchhouse as possible. There's no telling what Deveny might try to do.
But don't worry. If it wasn't so soon after--after what has happened--I
would--" He smiled, and Barbara knew he meant what he had said to her
many times--about there being a parson in Lazette, a hundred miles or so
northeastward--and of his eagerness to be present with her while the
parson "tied the knot." His manner had always been jocose, and yet she
knew of the earnestness behind it.

Still, she had not yielded to his importunities, because she had not been
quite sure that she wanted him. Nor was she certain now, though she liked
him better at this moment than she had ever liked him before.

She shook her head negatively, answering his smile; and watched him as he
rode around a corner of the ranchhouse toward the corral where, no doubt,
he would find Harlan.

                    *       *       *       *       *

Harlan had ridden directly to the bunkhouse door and dismounted. Red
Linton said nothing until Harlan seated himself on a bench just outside
the bunkhouse door. Then Linton grinned at him.

"There's a geezer come a-wooin'," he said.

Harlan glared at the red-haired man--a truculent, savage glare that made
Linton stretch his lips until the corners threatened to retreat to his
ears. Then Linton assumed a deprecatory manner.

"They ain't no chance for _him_, I reckon. He's been burnin' up the
breeze between here an' the Star for more'n a year--an' she ain't as much
as kissed him, I'd swear!"

Harlan did not answer.

"You saw him?" questioned Linton.

"Shut your rank mouth."

Linton chuckled. "I didn't know you'd been hit that bad. Howsomever, if
you _have_ been, why, there's no sense of me wastin' time gassin' to you.
They ain't nothin' will cure that complaint but petticoats an'
smiles--the which is mighty dangerous an' uncertain. I knowed a man
once----"

Harlan got up and walked to the bunkhouse. And Linton, grinning, called
loudly after him, pretending astonishment.

"Why, he's gone. Disappeared complete. An' me tryin' to jam some sense
into his head."

Grinning, Linton sauntered away, vanishing within the blacksmith-shop.

He had hardly disappeared when Haydon appeared from around a corner of
the ranchhouse, at about the instant Harlan, sensing the departure of
Linton, came to the door, frowning.

The frown still narrowed Harlan's eyes when they rested upon the
horseman; and his brows were drawn together with unmistakable truculence
when Haydon dismounted near the corral fence.

Haydon's manner had undergone a change. When in the presence of Barbara
he had been confident, nonchalant. When he dismounted from his horse and
walked toward Harlan there was about him an atmosphere that suggested
carefulness. Before Haydon had taken half a dozen steps Harlan was aware
that the man knew him--knew of his reputation--and feared him.

Respect was in Haydon's eyes, in the droop of his shoulders, in his
hesitating step. And into Harlan's eyes came a gleam of that contempt
which had always seized him when in the presence of men who feared him.

And yet, had not Harlan possessed the faculty of reading character at a
glance; had he not had that uncanny instinct of divining the thoughts of
men who meditated violence, he could not have known that Haydon feared
him.

For Haydon's fear was not abject. It was that emotion which counsels
caution, which warns of a worthy antagonist, which respects force that is
elemental and destroying.

Haydon smiled as he halted within a few paces of Harlan and turned the
palms of his hands outward.

"You're 'Drag' Harlan, of Pardo," he said.

Harlan nodded.

"My name's Haydon. I own the Star--about fifteen miles west--on Sunset
Trail. I happen to be a friend of Miss Morgan's, and I'd like to talk
with you about the Rancho Seco."

"Get goin'."

Haydon's smile grew less expansive.

"It's a rather difficult subject to discuss. It rather seems to be none
of my affair. But you will understand, being interested in Barbara's
future, and in the welfare of the ranch, why I am presuming to question
you. What do you intend to do with the ranch?"

"Run it."

"Of course," smiled Haydon. "I mean, of course, to refer to the financial
end of it. Miss Morgan will handle the money, I suppose."

"You got orders from Miss Barbara to gas to me about the ranch?"

"Well, no, I can't say that I have. But I have a natural desire to know."

"I'll be tellin' her what I'm goin' to do."

Haydon smiled faintly. Twice, during the silence that followed Harlan's
reply, Haydon shifted his gaze from Harlan's face to the ground between
himself and the other, and then back again. It was plain to Haydon that
he could proceed no farther in that direction without incurring the wrath
that slumbered in Harlan's heart, revealed by his narrowing eyes.

In Harlan's heart was a bitter, savage passion. Hatred for this man,
which had been aroused by Barbara's reference to him, and intensified by
his visit to the girl, had been made malignant by his appearance now in
the rôle of inquisitor.

Jealousy, Harlan would not have admitted; yet the conviction that Haydon
was handsome, and that women would like him--that no doubt Barbara
already liked him--brought a cold rage to Harlan. He stood, during the
momentary silence, his lips curving with contempt, his eyes glinting with
a passion that was unmistakable to Haydon.

He stepped down from the doorway and walked slowly to Haydon, coming to a
halt within a yard of him. His hands were hanging at his sides, his chin
had gone a little forward; and in his manner was the threat that had
brought a paralysis of fear to more than one man.

Yet, except for a slow stiffening of his muscles, Haydon betrayed no
fear. There was a slight smile on his lips; his eyes met Harlan's
steadily and unblinkingly. In them was a glint of that mysterious humor
which other men had seen in them.

"I know you're lightning on the draw, Harlan," he said, his faint smile
fading a trifle. "I wouldn't have a chance with you; I'm not a
gun-fighter. For that reason I don't want any disagreement with you. And
I've heard enough about you to know that you don't shoot unless the other
fellow is out to 'get' you.

"We won't have any trouble. Be fair. As the man who will ultimately take
charge of the Rancho Seco--since Miss Barbara has been good enough to
encourage me--I would like to know some things. I've heard that Lane
Morgan was killed at Sentinel Rock, and that you were with him when he
died--and just before. Did he give you authority to take charge of the
Rancho Seco?"

"He told me to take hold."

"A written order?"

"His word."

"He said nothing else; there were no papers on him--nothing of value?"

Neither man had permitted his eyes to waver from the other's since Harlan
had advanced; and they now stood, with only the few feet of space between
them, looking steadily at each other.

Harlan saw in Haydon's eyes a furtive, stealthy gleam as of cupidity
glossed over with a pretense of frank curiosity. He sensed greed in
Haydon's gaze, and knowledge of a mysterious quality.

Haydon knew something about Lane Morgan's errand to Pardo; he knew why
the man had started for Pardo, and what had been on his person at the
time of his death.

Harlan was convinced of that; and the light in his eyes as he looked into
Haydon's reflected the distrust and the contempt he had for the man.

"What do you think Morgan had in his clothes?" he questioned suddenly.

A slow flush of color stole into Haydon's cheeks, then receded, leaving
him a trifle pale. He laughed, with a pretense of mockery.

"You ought to know," he said, a snarl in his voice. "You must have
searched him."

Harlan grinned with feline mirthlessness. And he stepped back a little,
knowledge and satisfaction in his eyes.

For he had "looked Haydon over," following Morgan's instructions. He had
purposely permitted Haydon to question him, expecting that during the
exchange of talk the man would say something that would corroborate the
opinion that Harlan had instantly formed, that Haydon was not to be
trusted.

And Haydon's snarl; the cupidity in his eyes, and his ill-veiled
eagerness had convinced Harlan.

Harlan did not resent Haydon's manner; he was too pleased over his
discovery that Haydon possessed traits of character that unfitted him for
an alliance with Barbara. And it would be his business to bring those
traits out, so that Barbara could see them unmistakably.

He laughed lowly, dropping his gaze to Haydon's belt; to his right hand,
which hung limply near his pistol holster; and to the woolen shirt, with
the silk handkerchief at the throat sagging picturesquely.

His gaze roved over Haydon--insolently, contemptuously; his lips
twitching with the grim humor that had seized him. And Haydon stood, not
moving a muscle, undergoing the scrutiny with rigid body, with eyes that
had become wide with a queer sensation of dread wonder that was stealing
over him; and with a pallor that was slowly becoming ghastly.

For he had no doubt that at last he had unwittingly aroused the demon in
Harlan, and that violence, which he had wished to avoid, was imminent.

But Harlan's roving gaze, as he backed slightly away from Haydon, came to
the breast-pocket of the man's shirt. His gaze centered there definitely,
his eyes narrowing, his muscles leaping a little.

For out of the pocket stretched a gold chain, broken, its upper
end--where it entered the buttonhole of the shirt--fastened to the
buttonhole with a rawhide thong, as though the gold section were not long
enough to reach.

And the gold section of the chain was of the peculiar pattern of the
section that Harlan had picked up on the desert near Sentinel Rock.



CHAPTER XVI

DEEP WATER


Despite his conviction that he stood in the presence of the mysterious
"Chief" of whom he had heard much, Harlan's expression did not change.
There was a new interest added to it, and a deeper glow in his eyes. But
he gave no outward evidence of surprise.

"I reckon I searched him," he said, answering Haydon's charge. "If I
found anything on him I'm turnin' it over to Barbara Morgan--or hangin'
onto it. That's my business."

Haydon laughed, for Harlan's voice had broken the tension that had come
with the interval of threatening silence.

Since he could not induce Harlan to divulge anything of interest there
was nothing to do but to withdraw as gracefully as possible. And he
backed away, smiling, saying placatively:

"No offense intended, Harlan. I was merely curious on Barbara's account."
He mounted his horse, urged it along the corral fence, and sent back a
smiling:

"So-long."

Motionless, still standing where he had stood when Haydon climbed on his
horse, Harlan watched while the man rode the short distance to the house.
At the corner around which he had appeared some minutes before, Haydon
brought his horse to a halt, waved a hand--at Barbara, Harlan
supposed--and then rode on, heading westward toward Sunset Trail.

Harlan watched him until he had penetrated far into the big valley; then
he turned, slowly, and sought Red Linton--finding him in the
blacksmith-shop.

Later in the day--after Harlan and Linton had talked long, standing in
the door of the blacksmith-shop--Linton mounted his horse and rode to
where Harlan stood.

Linton was prepared for a long ride. Folded in the slicker that was
strapped to the cantle of his saddle was food; he carried his rifle in
the saddle sheath, and a water-bag bulged above the horse's withers.

"You won't find all the T Down boys yearnin' to bust into this ruckus,"
Harlan said as he stood near Linton's horse as Linton grinned down at
him; "but there'll be some. Put it right up to them that it ain't goin'
to be no pussy-kitten job, an' that it's likely some of them won't ever
see the T Down again. But to offset that, you can tell 'em that if we
make good, the Rancho Seco will owe them a heap--an' they'll get what's
comin' to them."

He watched while Linton rode eastward over the big level; then he grinned
and walked to the ranchhouse, going around the front and standing in the
wide gateway where he saw Barbara sitting on a bench in the _patio_,
staring straight ahead, meditatively, unaware that he was standing in the
gateway, watching her.

Harlan watched the girl for a long time--until she turned and saw him.
Then she blushed and stood up, looking at him in slight wonderment as he
came toward her and stood within a few feet of her.

On Harlan's face was a slow, genial grin.

"Sunnin' yourself, eh?" he said. "Well, it's a mighty nice day--not too
hot. Have you knowed him long?"

The startling irrelevance of the question caused Barbara to gaze sharply
at Harlan, and when their eyes met she noted that his were twinkling with
a light that she could not fathom. She hated him when she could not
understand him.

"Mr. Haydon, do you mean?" she questioned, a sudden coldness in her
voice.

Harlan nodded.

"A little more than a year, I think. It was just after I returned from
school, at Denver."

He watched her, saying lowly:

"So it was Denver. I'd been wonderin'. I knowed it must have been some
place. Schoolin' is a thing that I never had time to monkey with--I
reckon my folks didn't believe a heap in 'em."

"You've lived in the West all your life--you were born in the West, I
suppose?"

He looked keenly at her. "I expect you knowed that without askin'. I've
been wonderin' if it would have made any difference."

"How?"

"In me. Do you think an education makes a man act different--gives him
different ideas about his actions--in his dealin's with women, for
instance?"

"I expect it does. Education should make a man more considerate of
women--it is refining."

"Then you reckon a man that ain't had any education is coarse, an' don't
know how to treat a woman?"

"I didn't say that; I said education _should_ make a man treat women that
way."

"But it don't always?"

"I think not. I have known men--well educated men--who failed to treat
women as they should be treated."

"Then that ain't what you might call a hard-an'-fast rule--it don't
always work. An' there's hope for any man who ain't had schoolin'--if
he's wantin' to be a man."

"Certainly."

"But an educated man can't claim ignorance when he aims to mistreat a
woman. That's how it figures up, ain't it?"

She laughed. "It would seem to point to that conclusion."

"So you've knowed Haydon about a year? I reckon he's educated?"

"Yes." She watched him closely, wondering at his meaning--why he had
brought Haydon's name into the discussion. She was marveling at the
subtle light in his eyes.

"Your father liked Haydon--he told me Haydon was the only square man in
the country--besides himself an' Sheriff Gage."

"Father liked Haydon. I'm beginning to believe you really _did_ have a
talk with father before he died!"

He smiled. "Goin' back to Haydon. I had a talk with him a little while
ago. I sort of took a shine to him." He drew from a pocket the section of
gold chain he had found on the desert, holding it out to her.

"Here's a piece of Haydon's watch chain," he said slowly, watching her
face. "The next time Haydon comes to see you, give it to him, tellin' him
I found it. It's likely he'll ask you where I found it. But you can say I
wasn't mentionin'."

He turned, looking back over his shoulder at her as he walked toward the
gate.

She stood, holding the glittering links in the palm of one hand, doubt
and suspicion in her eyes.

"Why," she called after him; "he was just here, and you say you talked
with him! Why didn't you give it to him?"

"Forgot it, ma'am. An' I reckon you'll be seein' him before I do."

Then he strode out through the gate, leaving her to speculate upon the
mystery of his words and his odd action in leaving the chain with her
when he could have personally returned it to Haydon.

Harlan, however, was grinning as he returned to the bunkhouse. For he
wanted Barbara to see Haydon's face when the section of chain was
returned to him, to gain whatever illumination she could from the
incident. He did not care to tell her--yet--that Haydon had killed her
father; but he did desire to create in her mind a doubt of Haydon, so
that she would hesitate to confide to him everything that happened at the
Rancho Seco.

For himself, he wanted to intimate delicately to Haydon his knowledge of
what had really occurred at Sentinel Rock; it was a message to the man
conveying a significance that Haydon could not mistake. It meant that for
some reason, known only to himself, Harlan did not intend to tell what he
knew.



CHAPTER XVII

FORGING A LETTER


The impulse which had moved Harlan to send Red Linton to the T Down ranch
to enlist the services of some of his old friends had resulted from a
conviction that he could not depend upon those men of the Rancho Seco
outfit who had seemed to him, to be unfriendly to Stroud, the straw-boss.
He knew nothing about them, and their loyalty to Barbara Morgan might be
of a quality that would not endure through the sort of trouble that
seemed to be imminent.

The T Down men--those who would come--would stand with him no matter what
happened--they would do his will without question.

There was no doubt in Harlan's mind that John Haydon was the mysterious
"Chief"--the man who had sent into Lane Morgan's breast the bullet that
had ultimately killed him; and there was no doubt that some powerful,
secret force was at work in the country, and that the force was directing
its attention to the Rancho Seco and the defenseless girl who was at the
nominal head of it. For some reason the secret force had killed her
father, had isolated the ranch, had encompassed it with enemies, and was
working slowly and surely to enmesh the girl herself.

Harlan was convinced that one of the motives behind the subtle
aggressions of the men was a yearning for the gold that Morgan had
left--in fact the presence of Dolver and Laskar at Sentinel Rock--and
Morgan's word to him about the gold--provided sufficient evidence on that
score.

They had watched Morgan; they suspected he was taking gold to Pardo to
have it assayed, and they had killed him in the hope of finding something
on his person which would reveal to them where he had hidden the rest of
it.

One other motive was that of the eternal, ages-old passion of a man for
woman. Evidence of that passion had been revealed to Harlan at Lamo, by
the attack on Barbara by Deveny's hireling--Higgins; by the subtle
advances of John Haydon. It seemed to Harlan that all of these men had
been--and were--equally determined to possess the girl.

And yet back of it all--behind that which had been rendered visible by
the actions of the man and by Harlan's own deductions--was something
else--something stealthy and hidden; a secret threat of dire things to
come--a lingering promise of trickery.

Standing at one of the gates of the corral upon the third morning
following Linton's departure, Harlan considered this phase of the
situation. He felt the hidden threat of something sinister that lurked in
the atmosphere.

It was all around him. It seemed to lie secreted in the yawning space
that engulfed the Rancho Seco--south, north, and east. From the haze that
stretched into the unending distance westward it seemed to come, bearing
its whispered promise. The solemn hills that flanked the wide stretches
of Sunset Valley seemed to hint of it--somberly.

Mystery was in the serene calm that seemed to encompass the big basin;
from the far reaches westward, in the misty veil that seemed to hang from
the far-flung shafts of sunlight that penetrated the fleecy clouds, came
the sinister threat--the whole section seemed to pulse with it.

And yet Harlan knew there could be no mystery except the mysteries of
men. Nature was the same here as in any other section of the world, and
her secrets were not more profound than usual.

He grinned mirthlessly at the wonderful basin, noting that the Rancho
Seco buildings seemed to lie on a direct line with its center; that the
faint trail that ran through the basin--the trail men traveled--came on
in its undulating way straight toward the Rancho Seco ranchhouse, seemed
to bring the mystery of the big basin with it; seemed to be a link that
connected the Rancho Seco with the promise of trouble.

That impression might have engaged the serious thoughts of some men. It
widened the smile on Harlan's face. For he knew there was no threat in
the beauty of the valley; that it did not hide its secrets from the
prying eyes of men. Whatever secret the valley held was in the minds of
men--the minds of Deveny and the mysterious "Chief," and their followers.

Harlan had not absented himself from the ranchhouse since the departure
of Linton. He had lounged in the vicinity of the buildings during the
day--and Barbara had seen him many times from the windows; and he had
spent his nights watching the ranchhouse, half expecting another attack
on Barbara.

The girl had seen him at night, too; and she had smiled at the picture he
made with the moonlight shining upon him--or standing in some
shadow--somber, motionless, undoubtedly guarding her.

She saw him this morning, too, as he stood beside the corral gate, and
there was a glow in her eyes that, had he seen it, might have thrilled
him with its gratitude.

She came out of a rear door after a while, and Harlan was still standing
at the gate.

He watched her as she came toward him--it was the first time she had
ventured in that direction since the return from Lamo with him--noting
that she seemed to be in better spirits--that she was smiling.

"You looked lonesome," she said, as she halted near him. "Did Linton join
the outfit?"

"It's likely; he went three days ago."

"I knew he had gone; I saw you several times, and you were always alone.
And," she added, looking keenly at him; "I saw you several times, at
night. Don't you ever sleep?"

"I reckon I'm a sort of restless cuss."

Her face took on serious lines.

"Look here, Harlan," she said, reprovingly, "you are keeping something
back. You have been watching the ranchhouse at night--and during the day.
You are guarding me. Why is it? Do you think I am going to run away?"

"From me?" he queried; "I was hopin' you wouldn't."

She stiffened with exasperation, for she felt the insincerity in his
manner--caught the humorous note in his voice.

"You are treating me as you would treat a child," she declared; "and I
won't have it. Are you watching me because you fear there might be
another--Lawson?"

"There might be."

"Nonsense! There isn't another man in the section would dare what Lawson
dared!"

"Gentlemen--eh?" he said, tauntingly. "Well, I've nosed around quite
considerable, an' I don't remember to have ever run into a place where
there was fewer _men_ than in this neck of the woods."

"There are plenty of gentlemen. Do you think John Haydon----"

Harlan grinned faintly. "He's been fannin' it right along for half an
hour," he said, with seeming irrelevance.

"Who?" she asked, with a swift, uncomprehending glance at him.

"Your gentleman," he said slowly.

She followed the direction of his gaze, and saw, on the trail that led
downward from a little table-land to the level that stretched toward the
ranchhouse, a horseman, coming rapidly toward them.

"It's Mr. Haydon!" she ejaculated, her voice leaping.

"So it is," said Harlan, dryly. He looked keenly at her, noting the flush
on her face, the brightness of her eyes. "You ain't forgettin' to give
him that piece of chain."

"Why," she said, drawing the glittering links from a pocket of her skirt;
"I have it here. You may return it to him."

"Me an' Haydon ain't on speakin' terms," he smiled. "He wouldn't
appreciate it none, if I give it to him."

"Why--" she began, only to pause and look at him with a sudden
comprehension in her eyes. For into Harlan's face had come an expression
that, she thought, she could analyze. It was jealousy. That was why he
was reluctant to return the chain to Haydon.

The situation was so positively puerile, she thought, that she almost
felt like laughing. She would have laughed had it not been that she knew
of Harlan's unfailing vigilance--and that she felt differently toward him
now than she had felt during the first days of their acquaintance. His
steadfast vigilance, she decided, must have been responsible for the
change, together with the steady consideration he revealed for her.

At any rate, something about him had affected her. She felt more gentle
toward him; more inclined to believe in him; and there had been times
during the past few days when she had been astonished at the subtle, warm
sensation that had stolen over her whenever she saw him or whenever she
thought of him.

Something of that warmth toward him was in her eyes now as she watched
him and she decided that she should humor his whim; that she should
perform the action that he was reluctant to perform.

She smiled, with the wisdom of a woman to whom a secret had been
unwittingly revealed.

"You don't like Haydon?"

"Him an' me ain't goin' to be bosom friends."

"Why don't you like him?" she asked banteringly.

She thought his grin was brazen. "Why don't you like me?"

"I don't know," she said coldly. But her face reddened a little.

"Well," he laughed; "that's why I don't like Haydon."

Haydon had crossed the big level, and was close to the ranchhouse.

The girl had determined to remain where she was, to return the piece of
chain to Haydon in the presence of Harlan--in order to learn what she
could of the depth of Harlan's dislike for Haydon when in the presence of
the latter. And so a silence came between them as they watched Haydon
ride toward them.

When Haydon rode close to them he halted his horse and sat in the saddle,
an expression of cold inquiry on his face. His smile at Miss Barbara was
a trifle forced; his glance at Harlan had a fair measure of frank dislike
and suspicion in it.

Harlan deliberately turned his back toward Barbara and Haydon when the
latter dismounted; walked a little distance, and pretended to be
interested in a snubbing post in the corral.

Yet he cast furtive glances toward the two, and when he saw the girl
reaching into a pocket for the section of chain he had given her, he
slowly sauntered forward, and was within hearing distance when Barbara
spoke to Haydon.

"I was to give you this," she said--and she extended a hand toward
Haydon, the chain dangling from her fingers.

Harlan saw Haydon's muscles leap and become tense. He saw the man's color
go, saw his cheeks whiten; observed that his eyes widened and gleamed
with mingled astonishment and alarm.

He regained control of himself instantly, however, but Harlan had seen
enough to strengthen his convictions, and he grinned as Haydon flashed a
sharp glance at him.

Barbara, too, had noted the strange light in Haydon's eyes; she had seen
that Haydon had seemed about to shrink from the chain when she held it
out to him. She looked from Haydon to Harlan inquiringly and when her
glance again returned to Haydon he was smiling.

However, he had not taken the chain from her hand.

"Is it yours?" she asked.

"Yes--mine," he answered, hesitatingly. "Where did you find it?"

"Mr. Harlan found it." Barbara noted Haydon's quick start, the searching
glance he gave Harlan--who was now leaning on a rail of the corral fence,
seemingly uninterested.

Haydon laughed, a little hoarsely, it seemed to Barbara, and more loudly
than the occasion seemed to demand. She thought, though, that the laugh
might have been a jeer for Harlan's action in turning the chain over to
her instead of returning it directly to the owner.

She did not catch the searching inquiry of Haydon's glance at Harlan, nor
did she see Harlan's odd smile at Haydon, and the slow wink that
accompanied it.

But the wink and the smile conveyed to Haydon the intelligence that
Harlan knew the story connected with the loss of the chain, and that he
had not communicated it to the girl. They also expressed to Haydon the
message that Harlan and Haydon were kindred souls--the smile and the wink
told Haydon that this man who knew his secret was secretly applauding
him, even while inwardly laughing at him for his fear that the secret
would be betrayed.

Harlan's voice broke a short silence.

"Found it right about here--the other day. It must have laid there a long
time, for it took a heap of polishin' to brighten it up." Again he closed
an eye at Haydon, and the latter grinned broadly.

Barbara silently endured a pang of disappointment. She had caught
Harlan's wink. The man had betrayed jealousy only a few minutes ago, and
he had refused personally to return the chain to Haydon. And yet he stood
there now, smiling and winking at the other, evidently with the desire to
ingratiate himself. Sycophant, weakling, or fool--which was he? She
shuddered with disgust, deliberately turned her back to Harlan, and began
to walk toward the ranchhouse, Haydon following.

And Harlan, standing at the fence, leaned an elbow on one of the rails
and watched the two, an enigmatic smile on his face.

For he had succeeded in opening a gate which disclosed a trail that would
lead him straight to the mystery, a breath of which had been borne to him
that morning upon the slight breeze that had swept down to him from the
mighty valley out of which Haydon had ridden.

Between him and Haydon a bond had been established, fashioned from the
links of the section of chain.



CHAPTER XVIII

HARLAN RIDES ALONE


Upon the morning of the fourth day following Haydon's visit to the Rancho
Seco, a dust cloud developed on the northwestern horizon. Harlan observed
the cloud; he had been watching for it since dawn, when he had emerged
from the stable door, where he had been looking after Purgatory.

From the ranchhouse Barbara also saw the cloud, and she ran upstairs to
one of the north windows. There, with her face pressed against the glass,
she watched the cloud grow in size, observed that it was dotted with the
forms of horsemen; saw at last that the horsemen were headed straight for
the Rancho Seco. Then, wondering, anxious, eager, she descended the
stairs and ran out to where Harlan was standing, speaking breathlessly:

"What does it mean? Who are they?"

"It'll be Red Linton an' some T Down boys."

"'T Down'?"

"Pardo men. From where I used to work. I sent Linton for them. If I'm
going to run a ranch I aim to run it with men I can depend on."

She had hardly spoken to him in the four days that had elapsed since
Haydon's last visit, for the disgust she had felt that day had endured.
But there was something new in his manner now--a briskness, a
business-like air that made her look sharply at him.

He smiled at her, and in the smile was a snapping humor that puzzled her.

She stood, watching for a while--until the group of horsemen became
clearly defined--and then, with a sudden fear that the men might be
outlaws of the same type as Harlan--possibly he had sent for them because
they were--she returned to the ranchhouse and watched from one of the
windows.

When the T Down men rode up to the corral gate they dismounted and
surrounded Harlan. There were ten of them--rugged-looking fellows of
various ages, bepistoled, begrimed with dust, and articulate with profane
expressions of delight.

"Hell's a-poppin', Red says!" yelled one. "He says there's geezers here
which is pinin' for yore gore. Turn me loose on 'em--oh, turn me loose!"

The men, tired, dusty, and hungry, swarmed into one of the bunkhouses
immediately after they had turned their horses into the corral and cared
for their saddles.

The men were in good spirits, despite their long ride; and for half an
hour after they descended upon the bunkhouse the air pulsed with their
talk and their laughter, as they washed their dust-stained faces from the
tin washbasin on the bench outside the door, and combed their hair with a
comb attached to a rawhide thong that swung from the wall above the
basin.

They had been informed by Red Linton regarding the situation that had
developed at the Rancho Seco--fully informed before they had begun their
trip westward--Linton scrupulously and faithfully presenting to them the
dangers that confronted them. And though some of them were still curious,
and sought a word with Harlan in confirmation, they seemed to be
satisfied to trust to Harlan's judgment. Their faith was of the kind that
needs but little verbal reassurance.

That they admired the man who had sent for them there was little doubt;
for they watched him with glowing eyes as he talked with them, revealing
their pride that they had been selected. Hardy, clear-eyed, serenely
unafraid, they instantly adapted themselves to the new "job," and before
their first meal was finished they were thoroughly at home.

Shortly afterward--while the men were lounging about inside--Harlan drew
Linton outside.

"That's the bunch I would have picked if I had gone myself," complimented
Harlan. "I'm thankin' you a heap."

He whispered to Linton the story of Haydon's last visit and for the first
time Linton heard about the section of chain which convicted Haydon of
the murder of Lane Morgan. Linton's eyes gleamed.

"I've always sort of suspected the son-of-a-gun!" he declared. "An' him
makin' love to Barbara! The sneakin' coyote! An' so you're goin' to see
him? I'd be a whole lot careful."

Harlan's smile was grave. "I'm reckonin' to be. I'd have gone before
this, but I was waitin' for you boys. Nobody is sayin' anything to
anybody. You're stickin' close to the Rancho Seco, not lettin' Barbara
out of your sight. That's what I wanted you an' the other guys for. I'm
playin' the rest of it a lone hand."

Leaving Linton standing near the bunkhouse, he went to the stable, where
he threw saddle and bridle on Purgatory. Then he mounted, waved a hand at
Linton, who was watching him, and rode to the ranchhouse. At the
northwest corner--around which Haydon had ridden on the occasion of his
last visit--he brought Purgatory to a halt, for he saw Barbara just
emerging from the _patio_ gate.

She halted in the opening when she observed him; making a picture that
was vivid in his memory for many days afterward--for her eyes were alight
with wonder, her cheeks were flushed, and she was breathing fast.

For she had watched from a window the coming of the T Down men; she had
noted the conference between Harlan and Linton; and she had seen Harlan
waving a hand at the red-haired man, seemingly in farewell. She stood
now, afflicted with a strange regret, suddenly aware that she would feel
the absence of the man who sat on his horse before her--for she divined
that he was going.

"I'm sayin' so-long to you, ma'am," smiled Harlan.

"Oh!" she said, aware of the flatness of her tone. "Are you going away?"

"I'm figurin' to go. I ain't used to hangin' around one place very long.
But I'm comin' back some day. Red Linton an' the boys will be seein' that
things go smooth with you. You can depend on Red, and all the boys.
They're Simon-pure, dyed-in-the-wool, eighteen-carat men." And now he
grinned, gravely. "Remember this, Barbara: A man will do things when he's
handlin' a gold chain--things that he wouldn't do if there didn't happen
to be any chain."

He doffed his hat and slapped Purgatory sharply, heading the animal
westward, toward the yawning mouth of the big basin that stretched its
mighty length into the mystery of distance.

But his words left her with a conviction that she had again misjudged
him, and that when he had appeared to fawn on Haydon he had been merely
acting, merely pretending. She watched him, regretfully, longingly,
assailed by emotions that she could not understand--until he and
Purgatory grew small in the gulf of distance; until horse and rider were
swallowed in the glowing haze.



CHAPTER XIX

HARLAN JOINS THE GANG


At the edge of the big level, where it merged into the floor of the
basin, Harlan drew Purgatory to a halt. For an instant he sat in the
saddle scrutinizing a section of buffalo grass that fringed a clump of
willows near the almost dry bed of the river that doubled slightly as it
came from the basin. Something in the appearance of the grass had
attracted his attention--it was matted, as though something had lain or
rolled in it.

He rode closer, cautiously, for the little trees formed a covert behind
which any one of several dangers might lie concealed--and looked down at
the grass. As he examined the place his lips twisted into a grim smile,
and his eyes grew bright with comprehension.

He rode around the clump of trees, making sure it was not occupied; then
he dismounted.

Someone had been concealed in the covert for many days--a man. For he saw
the imprints of heels, and indentations where spurs had gashed the earth.
The marks were all fresh--recently made. While he watched he saw some
blades of the long grass slowly rise--as though, relieved from some
pressure that had been upon them, they were eager to regain an upright
position. He also saw scraps of food--jerked beef and biscuit--scattered
here and there.

He frowned, convinced that for days a man had occupied the covert,
watching the Rancho Seco; convinced also, that the mystery he had sensed
some days ago had been man-made, as he had felt. The man who had been
there had been a sentinel, a spy, sent by Deveny or Haydon to observe his
movements, and to report them, of course, to one or the other of the two
outlaws.

Harlan remounted Purgatory. His caution had not been wasted, and his
vigilance in guarding the ranchhouse must have been irritating to the man
who had been watching.

He urged Purgatory on again--heading him westward, as before. And when he
reached the crest of a slight rise in the valley--from where he could see
the trail as it twisted and undulated around hills and into depressions--he
saw, far up the valley--and yet not so far, either--not more than two
miles--a horseman, riding slowly--away from him.

The horseman was the spy, of course. Harlan had no doubt that if he
lingered in the vicinity of the covert long enough he would discover the
place where the horse had been concealed. But that was not important, now
that he had discovered enough to satisfy himself that there had been a
spy--and so he rode on, smiling faintly, knowing that the rider was
headed into the valley--possibly to the outlaw rendezvous to appraise
Deveny and the others of his coming.

The trail was clearly defined, and there were places where it ran over
broad levels of grass where he presented a good target to men who might
be eager to send a shot at him. There were other spots where the trail
led into timber clumps and through tangles of brush where an ambuscade
might be planned in perfect safety by an enemy; and there were the
bastioned cliffs that towered above the trail at intervals, offering
admirable hinding-places for any man with hostile intentions.

Harlan, however, rode steadily, outwardly unconcerned; inwardly convinced
that no attempt would be made to ambush him. For Haydon has passed that
way on his return to the Star, and Harlan had no doubt that since the
incident of the smile and the wink, Haydon had passed word that he was
not to be molested.

Haydon would be curious--as he had been curious at the Rancho Seco--to
learn the significance of the smile and the wink. Haydon would want to
discover just how much Harlan knew about the murder of Lane Morgan; and
he would want to know what Harlan knew of the gold that Morgan had
secreted. And so Harlan rode on, watching the country through which he
passed, but feeling assured there would be no shot to greet him from one
of the many natural vantage-points he encountered.

He rode for an hour, not making very good time, for it was a new trail,
and he was examining the country intently as he passed, fixing it in his
memory for future convenience, perhaps--no one ever knew just when it
might be necessary to use one's knowledge--when he reached a low ridge
which crossed the valley.

Here he halted Purgatory and gazed about him.

Before him stretched a green grass level, about two miles long, running
the entire width of the valley. It was dotted with mesquite, sage, and
here and there the thorny blade of a cactus rose. Some cattle were
grazing on the level; they were several miles south, and he could see
some horsemen near them.

He decided he must be close to the Star; and he urged Purgatory on again,
down upon the level, toward some timber that grew at the farther edge of
the level. Just as he slipped down the slope of the ridge, he saw, far
ahead of him, the horseman he had seen when he had entered the valley.
The horseman was on the crest of a bald hill--low, and small--but Harlan
caught a glimpse of him as he crossed it, riding fast.

Harlan smiled again, and rode on his way, resuming his scrutiny of the
country.

The valley was mighty, magnificent; it deserved all the praise Barbara
Morgan had heaped upon it. From the low mountain range on the north to
the taller mountains southward, it was a virgin paradise in which reigned
a peace so profound that it brought a reverent awe into the soul of the
beholder.

It thrilled Harlan despite the certain blasé, matter-of-fact attitude he
had for all of nature's phenomena; he found himself admiring the majestic
buttes that fringed it; there was a glint of appreciation in his eyes for
the colossal bigness of it--for the gigantic, sweeping curves which
seemed to make of it an oblong bowl, a cosmic hollow, boundless, hinting
of the infinite power of its builder.

The trail that ran through it, drawled to threadlike proportions by the
mightiness of the space through which it ran, was, for the greater part
of the distance traveled by Harlan, a mere scratch upon a low rock ridge.
And as he rode he could look down upon the floor of the valley, green and
inviting.

When he entered the timber at the edge of the grass level, he was
conscious of a stealthy sound behind him. He turned quickly in the
saddle, to see a man standing at the edge of some brush that fringed the
trail.

The man was big, a heavy black beard covered his chin and portions of his
cheeks; his hat was drawn well down over his forehead, partially
shielding his eyes.

A rifle in his hands was held loosely, and though it appeared that the
man did not intend to use the weapon immediately, Harlan could see that
his right forefinger was touching the trigger, and that the muzzle of the
weapon was suggestively toward him.

For the past few miles of his ride Harlan had been expecting an
apparition of this sort to appear, and so he now gave no sign of
surprise. Instead, he slowly raised both hands until they were on a level
with his shoulders--and, still twisted about in the saddle, he grinned
faintly at the man.

"From now on I'm to have company, eh?" he said.

The man smirked grimly at him.

"You've hit it," he answered. "You're Harlan, ain't you? 'Drag' Harlan,
the Pardo two-gun man?"

The man's eyes were glowing with interest--critical, almost cynical, and
they roved over Harlan with a probing intensity that left no doubt in
Harlan's mind that the man had heard of him and was examining him with
intent to discover what sort of a character he was.

Apparently satisfied--and also plainly impressed with what he saw, the
man grinned--this time almost genially--and answered Harlan's affirmative
nod with:

"Well, Haydon is expectin' you. You c'n let your paws down--takin' a heap
of care not to go to foolin' with your guns. I ain't takin' them; Haydon
didn't say anything about it. You're ridin' that trail that forks off to
the left."

Harlan lowered his hands, resting them on the pommel of his saddle, and
rode on, taking, as advised, a narrow trail that diverged from the other
a short distance from where he had met the man. As he struck the other
trail he heard the man coming behind him--on a horse.

There were no further words. Harlan kept to the trail, riding slowly; the
man behind him following at a short distance.

In this manner they rode for perhaps a mile. Then the timber grew sparse,
and Purgatory and his rider at last emerged upon a level that extended
about a hundred feet and then sloped down abruptly to another level,
through which flowed a narrow stream of water, shallow and clear.

Close to the bank of the stream was an adobe ranchhouse, and surrounding
it were several other buildings. At a slight distance from the house was
a corral in which were several horses. In front of a bunkhouse were
several men who, when they saw Harlan and the other man coming, faced
toward them and stood, motionless, watching.

The men maintained silence as Harlan rode to the ranchhouse and sat in
the saddle, awaiting the pleasure of his escort. He saw the latter grin
at the other men as he passed them; and he grinned at Harlan as he
brought his horse to a halt near Purgatory and dismounted.

"I reckon you're to git off an' visit," he said; "Haydon is inside." As
he dismounted and trailed the reins over the head of his beast he cast a
sharp, critical eye over Purgatory.

"There's a heap of hoss in that black, eh?"

"Plenty." Harlan got down and ran a hand over Purgatory's neck, while
trailing the reins over his head. "Man-killer," he warned. "Don't touch
him. He ain't been rode by nobody but me, an' he won't stand for nobody
foolin' around him."

Harlan had raised his voice until he was sure the men in front of the
bunkhouse heard him; then he grinned genially at them all and followed
the black-bearded man into the ranchhouse.

An instant later, in a big room which had the appearance of an office,
Harlan was confronting Haydon.

The latter was sitting in a chair at a desk, and when Harlan entered
Haydon got up and grinned at him, shallowly, without mirth.

"So you got here," he said; "I've been expecting you."

"I've been notin' that. That guy you left at the edge of the level to
keep an eye on the Rancho Seco didn't cover his tracks. I run onto
them--an' I saw him hittin' the breeze--comin' here. I reckon nobody is
surprised." Harlan grinned widely.

"So you noticed that," said Haydon, answering Harlan's grin. "Well, I
don't mind admitting that we've kept an eye on you. You've had me
guessing."

Haydon's manner was that of the man who is careful not to say too much,
his constraint was of the quality that hints of a desire to become
confidential--a smooth, bland courtesy; a flattering voice--encouraging,
suggesting frankness.

Harlan's manner was that of a certain reckless carelessness. He seemed to
be perfectly at ease, confident, deliberate, and unwatchful. He knew
Haydon was an outlaw; that the men who had been grouped in front of the
bunkhouse were members of Haydon's band; he knew the man who had escorted
him to the Star had been deliberately stationed in the timber to watch
for him. And he had no doubt that other outlaws had lain concealed along
the trail to observe his movements.

He knew, too, that he had placed himself in a precarious predicament--that
his life was in danger, and that he must be exceedingly careful.

Yet outwardly he was cool, composed. With Haydon's eyes upon him he drew
a chair to a point near the desk, seated himself in it, drew out paper
and tobacco, and rolled a cigarette. Lighting it, he puffed slowly,
watching while Haydon dropped into the chair he had vacated at Harlan's
appearance.

When Haydon dropped into his chair he grinned admiringly at Harlan.

"You're a cool one, Harlan," he said; "I've got to say that for you. But
there's no use in four-flushing. You've come here to tell me something
about the chain. Where did you find it?"

"At Sentinel Rock--not far from where you plugged Lane Morgan."

"You're assuming that I shot Morgan?" charged Haydon.

"Morgan was assumin', too, I reckon," grinned Harlan. "He told me it was
you who shot him--he saw your face by the flash of your gun. An' he told
me where to look for the chain--him not knowin' it was a chain--but
somethin'."

Haydon's eyes gleamed with a cold rage--which he concealed by passing a
hand over his forehead, veiling his eyes from Harlan. His lips were
wreathed in a smile.

"Why didn't you tell me that the other day--the first time I met you?"

Harlan laughed. "I was havin' notions then--notions that I'd be playin'
her a lone hand."

"And now?" Haydon's eyes were steady with cold inquiry.

"I've got other notions. I'm acceptin' Deveny's invitation to throw in
with you."

Haydon was silent for an instant, and during the silence his gaze met
Harlan's fairly. By the humorous gleam in Harlan's eyes Haydon divined
that the man could not be misled--that he knew something of the situation
in the valley, and that he had come here with the deliberate intention of
joining the outlaw band.

There was, as Haydon had intimated, little use for an attempt at
equivocation or pretense. It was a situation that must be faced squarely
by both himself and Harlan. Harlan's reputation, and his action in
keeping secret from Barbara Morgan the identity of her father's murderer,
indicated sincerity on the man's part. And since Harlan knew him to be
the murderer of Morgan it would be absurd for Haydon to pretend that he
had no connection with Deveny's band. He could not fool this man.

Yet a jealous hatred of Harlan was thinly concealed by the steady smile
with which he regarded his visitor. He had felt the antagonism of Harlan
that day when he had talked with him at the bunkhouse door; Harlan's
manner that day had convinced him that Harlan was jealous of his
attentions to Barbara Morgan. Also, there was in his heart a professional
jealousy--jealousy of Harlan's reputation.

For this man who sat in his chair so calmly, with danger encompassing
him, was greater than he. Haydon knew it. Had there been any doubt in his
mind on that score it must have been removed by a memory of the manner in
which his men had received the news that Harlan had left the Rancho Seco
and was on his way up the valley.

The rider Harlan had seen had come in with that news--and Haydon had been
standing with the group at the bunkhouse when the man arrived. And he had
not failed to note the nervous glances of some of the men, and the
restless eagerness, not unmixed with anxiety, with which they watched the
trail.

And now, facing Harlan, he felt the man's greatness--his especial fitness
for the career he had adopted. Harlan was the ideal outlaw. He was cool,
deep, subtle. He was indomitable; he felt no fear; his will was
inflexible, adamant. Haydon felt it. The fear he had experienced at his
first meeting with Harlan had endured until this minute--it was strong as
ever.

Yet he admired the man; and knew that since he had come to the valley he
must be considered an important factor. Haydon could not flatly tell him
to get out of the valley; he could not order him away from the Rancho
Seco. Harlan was in control there--for the rider who had come in with the
news that Harlan had set out for the valley had also apprised Haydon of
the coming, to the Rancho Seco, of the men of the T Down outfit.

The rider had not been able to tell Haydon who the men were, of course;
but it made little difference. They were friends of Harlan's, for they
had come from the direction of the desert--from Pardo.

It was plain to Haydon that Harlan had come to the valley to stay. It was
equally plain that he must be either propitiated or antagonized. He felt
that Harlan was giving him his choice.

"What do you want--if you throw in with us?" Haydon asked, following the
trend of his own thoughts.

"That's straight talk," said Harlan. "I'm givin' you a straight answer.
If I join your bunch I join on the same footing with you an'
Deveny--nothin' less. We split everything three ways--the other boys
takin' their regular share after we take ours. I bring my boys in under
the rules you've got that govern the others. I run the Rancho Seco--no
one interferin'. When I rustle up that gold old Morgan hid, we split it
three ways. Barbara Morgan goes with the ranch--no one interferin'."

Color surged into Haydon's face.

"You don't want much, do you?" he sneered.

"I want what's comin' to me--what I'm goin' to take, if I come in. That's
my proposition. You can take it or leave it."

Haydon was silent for an instant, studying Harlan's face. What he saw
there brought a frown to his own.

"Harlan," he said softly, "some of the boys feel a little resentful over
the way you sent Dolver and Laskar out. There are several friends of
those two men outside now. Suppose I should call them in and tell them
that the bars are down on you--eh?"

If Haydon expected his threat to intimidate Harlan, he was mistaken.
Harlan sat, motionless, watching the outlaw chief steadily. And into his
eyes came a glitter of that cold contempt which Haydon had seen in them
on the day he had faced Harlan near the bunkhouse at the Rancho Seco.

"You're doin' the honors, Haydon," he said. "If you're that kind of a
coyote I don't want to deal with you. If you think you want to pass up a
share of that hundred thousand, start yappin' to them boys. It's likely
there's some of them hangin' around, close. Mebbe you've got some of them
peekin' around corners at me now. I ain't runnin' from no trouble that
comes my way. Get goin' if you're yearnin' to requisition the mourners."

Rage over the threat was now plain in his eyes, for they were aflame with
a cold fire as he got up from his chair and stood, crouching a little,
his hands lingering near the butts of his guns.

Haydon did not move, but his face grew pallid and he smiled nervously,
with shallow mirth.

"You are not in a joking mood today, Harlan?" he said.

"There's jokes, _an'_ jokes, Haydon. I've come here in good faith. I've
been in camps like this before--in Kelso's, Dave Rance's, Blondy
Larkin's, an' some others. Them men are outlaws--like you an' me; an'
they've done things that make them greater than you an' me--in our line.
But I've visited them, free an' easy--goin' an' comin' whenever I
pleased. An' no man threatenin' me.

"Your manners is irritatin' to me--I'm tellin' you so. I'm through!
You're takin' me out, now--back to the Rancho Seco. You're ridin' behind
me--minus your guns, your mouth shut tighter than you ever shut it
before. An' if there's any shootin' you'll know it--plenty!"

Harlan had brought matters to a crisis--suddenly, in a flash. The time
for pretense had gone. Haydon could accept Harlan upon the terms he had
mentioned, or he could take up the man's challenge with all it
implied--bitter warfare between the two factions, which would be
unprofitable to both, and especially to Haydon.

It was for Haydon to decide; and he sat for some seconds motionless in
the chair, before he spoke.

Then he got up--taking care to keep his right hand at a respectable
distance from the butt of his pistol, and smilingly held out his hand.

"It goes your way, Harlan--we take you in on your terms. I beg your
pardon for saying what I did. That was just to try you out. I've heard a
lot about you, and I wanted to see if you were in earnest--if you really
wanted to come in. I'm satisfied."

They shook hands; their gaze meeting as they stood close together. The
gaze endured for an instant; and then Haydon's fell. The handshake lasted
for several seconds, and it was curious to see how Haydon's eyes, after
they had become veiled from Harlan's by the drooping lids, glowed with a
malignant triumph and cunning.

It was also curious to note that something of the same passion was
revealed in Harlan's eyes as they rested on the partially closed lids of
the other--for there was triumph there, too--and comprehension, and craft
of a kind that might have disturbed Haydon, had he seen it.

Then their hands parted, mutually, and Haydon grinned smoothly and with
apparent cordiality at Harlan. He grasped Harlan by an elbow and urged
him toward the door through which the latter had entered.

"I'll give you a knockdown to the boys, now--those that are here," he
said.

An hour later--after Haydon and the dozen men to whom he had introduced
Harlan had watched Harlan ride eastward through the valley toward the
Rancho Seco--Haydon rode westward, accompanied by several of the men.

They rode for many miles into the heart of the big basin, coming at last
to a gorge that wound a serpentine way southward, through some concealing
hills, into a smaller basin. A heavy timber clump grew at the mouth of
the gorge, hiding it from view from the trail that ran through the
valley. Some rank underbrush that fringed the timber gave the mouth of
the gorge the appearance of a shallow cave, and a wall of rock, forming a
ragged arch over the entrance, heightened the impression. At first glance
the place seemed to be impenetrable.

But the horsemen filed through easily enough, and the underbrush closed
behind them, so that, had they been seen, the watcher might have been
startled by their sudden disappearance.

Near the center of the little basin stood a huge cabin, built of adobe,
with a flat roof. In a small corral were a number of cattle. Grazing upon
the grass, with which the place was carpeted, were many horses; and
lounging in the grass near the cabin, and upon some benches that ranged
its walls, were perhaps a dozen men, heavily armed.

Several of the men grinned as the newcomers rode in and dismounted, and
one or two spoke a short greeting to Haydon, calling him "Chief."

Haydon did not linger to talk with the men, though; he dismounted and
entered the cabin, where, an instant later, he was talking with Deveny.

Haydon's eyes were still triumphant--glowing with a malignant
satisfaction.

"He's wise--and dead tickled to join," he told Deveny, referring to
Harlan. "And I took him in on his own terms. We'll play him along, making
him believe he's regular and right, until we get what we want. Then we'll
down him!"

                    *       *       *       *       *

At about the time Haydon was talking with Deveny, Harlan was dismounting
at the Rancho Seco corral.

The T Down men were variously engaged--some of them in the corral; others
in the stable, and still others in the blacksmith-shop--all attending to
their new duties--and only Red Linton was at the corral gate to greet
Harlan.

Triumph was in Harlan's eyes as he grinned at Linton.

"I'm a Simon-pure outlaw now, Red," he stated. "Haydon didn't hesitate
none. He's a sneakin', schemin' devil, an' he hates me like poison. But
he took me in, reckonin' to play me for a sucker. Looks like things might
be interestin'." He grinned. "I'm yearnin' for grub, Red."

Later, while Harlan was seated at a table in the cook shanty, he became
aware of a shadow at the door; and he wheeled, to see Barbara Morgan
looking in at him, her face flushed, a glow in her eyes that was entirely
comprehensible to Harlan.

She was glad he had returned--any man with half Harlan's wisdom could
have told that! And color of a kind not caused by the wind and sun
suffused Harlan's face.

She had seen him from one of the kitchen windows, and curiosity--and an
impatience that would not permit of delay--had brought her to search for
him.

"Why," she said, "I--I thought--didn't you say that you were going away?"

"Didn't I go?" he grinned.

"For a day," she taunted, her voice leaping.

"A day," he said gravely; "why, it was longer than that, wasn't it? Seems
that I ain't seen you for years an' years!"

He got up, his hunger forgotten. But when he reached the door he saw her
running toward the ranchhouse, not even looking back. He stood watching
her until she opened a door and vanished. Then he grinned and returned to
his neglected food, saying aloud, after the manner of men who spend much
time in open places: "I'll sure take care of her, Morgan."



CHAPTER XX

LEFT-HANDED


Harlan's statement to Haydon, to the effect that he had visited the camps
of Kelso, Rance, Larkin, and other outlaws had been strictly accurate. At
one time or another each of those outlaw leaders had sent for Harlan, to
endeavor to prevail upon him to cast his lot with them--so common was the
report that Harlan was of their type.

And he had been able--as he had told Haydon--to go among them with
impunity--unmolested, respected. And even after he had refused to join
they had extended him the courtesy of faith--not even swearing him to
secrecy. And he had vindicated their faith by keeping silent regarding
them.

Knowing, however, that the ethics of men of the type of Kelso, Rance,
Larkin, and others provided a safe conduct for any man of their kind that
came among them, Harlan had felt contempt for Haydon for his threat. And
yet Harlan's rage on that occasion had been largely surface; it had been
displayed for effect--to force an instant decision from Haydon.

Harlan was aware that his only hope of protecting Barbara Morgan from
Haydon and Deveny was in an offensive war. He could not expect to wage
such a war by remaining idly at the Rancho Seco, to await the inevitable
aggressions of the outlaws, for he did not know when they would strike,
nor how. It was certain they would strike, and it was as certain they
would strike when he least expected them to.

Therefore he had determined to join them, depending upon his reputation
to allay any suspicion they might have regarding his motives. Haydon had
taken him into the band, but Harlan had been convinced that Haydon
distrusted him. He had seen distrust in Haydon's eyes; and he had known,
when Haydon dropped his gaze at the instant they had shaken hands, that
the man meditated duplicity.

Yet Harlan was determined to appear ignorant that Haydon meditated
trickery. He intended to go among the men and deliberately to ignore the
threatened dangers--more, to conduct himself in such a manner that Haydon
would not suspect that he knew of any danger.

It had been a slight incident that had suggested the plan to him--merely
a glance at Strom Rogers, while the latter, in Lamo, had been watching
Deveny.

Harlan had seen hatred in Rogers' face, and contempt and jealousy; and he
knew that where such passion existed it could be made to grow and
flourish by suggestion and by example.

And he was determined to furnish the example.

He knew something of the passions of men of the type which constituted the
band headed by Deveny and Haydon; he knew how their passions might be
played upon; he was aware of their respect and admiration for men of
notorious reputation, with records for evil deeds and rapid "gunslinging."

He had seen how Strom Rogers had watched him--with awed respect; he had
seen approval in Rogers' eyes when they had exchanged glances in Lamo;
and he had heard men in the group in front of the sheriff's office
speaking of him in awed whispers.

He had never been affected by that sort of adulation--in Lamo or in the
days that preceded his visit to the town. But he was not unmindful of the
advantage such adulation would give him in his campaign for control of
the outlaw camp. And that was what he had determined to achieve.

Three times in as many days he rode up the valley to the Star, each time
talking with Haydon--then leaving the latter to go out and lounge around
among the men, listening to their talk, but taking little part in it. He
did not speak until he was spoken to, and thus he challenged their
interest, and they began to make advances to him.

Their social structure was flimsy and thin, their fellowship as
spontaneous as it was insincere; and within a few days the edge had worn
off the strangeness that had surrounded Harlan, and he had been accepted
with hardly a ripple of excitement.

And yet no man among them had achieved intimacy with Harlan. There was a
cold constraint in his manner that held them off, figuratively, barring
them from becoming familiar with him. Several of them tried familiarity,
and were astonished to discover that they had somehow failed--though they
had been repelled so cleverly that they could not resent it.

Harlan had established a barrier without them being aware of how he had
done it--the barrier of authority and respect, behind which he stood, an
engaging, saturnine, interesting, awe-compelling figure.

At the end of a week the men of the Star outfit were addressing him as
"boss;" listening to him with respect when he spoke, striving for his
attention, and trying to win from him one of those rare smiles with which
he honored those among them whose personalities interested him.

At the end of two weeks half of the Star outfit was eager to obey any order
he issued, while the remainder betrayed some slight hesitation--which,
however, vanished when Harlan turned his steady gaze upon them.

Behind their acceptance of him, though--back of their seeming willingness
to admit him to their peculiar fellowship--was a reservation. Harlan felt
it, saw it in their eyes, and noted it in their manner toward him. They
had heard about him; they knew something of his record; reports of his
cleverness with a weapon had come to them. And they were curious.

There was speculation in the glances they threw at him; there was some
suspicion, cynicism, skepticism, and not a little doubt. It seemed to
Harlan that though they had accepted him they were impatiently awaiting a
practical demonstration of those qualities that had made him famous in
the country. They wanted to be "shown."

Their wild, unruly passions and lurid imaginations were the urges that
drove them--that shaped their conduct toward their fellows. Some of them
were rapid gunslingers--in the picturesque idioms of their speech--and
there was not a man among them who did not take pride in his ability to
"work" his gun. They had accepted Harlan, but it was obvious that among
them were some that doubted the veracity of rumor--some who felt that
Harlan had been overrated.

It did not take Harlan long to discover who those doubting spirits were.
He saw them watching him--always with curling lip and truculent eye; he
heard references to his ability from them--scraps of conversation in
which such terms and phrases as "a false alarm, mebbe," "he don't look
it," "wears 'em for show, I reckon," were used. He had learned the names
of the men; there were three of them, known merely as "Lanky," "Poggs,"
and "Latimer."

Their raids upon the cattle in the basin took place at night; and their
other depredations occurred at that time also. Harlan did not fail to
hear of them, for their successes figured prominently in their daytime
conversations; and he had watched the herd of cattle in the Star corrals
grow in size until the enclosure grew too small to hold them comfortably.
He had noted, too, the cleverness with which the men obliterated the
brands on the stolen cattle--or refashioned them until proof of their
identity was obscure.

He had taken no part in any of the raids, though he had passed a few
nights at the Star, directing, with the help of Strom Rogers, the
altering of the brands and the other work attending the disguising of the
cattle.

Haydon he had seen but a few times, and Deveny not at all. He learned
from Rogers that Haydon spent most of his time upon mysterious missions
which took him to Lamo, to Lazette, and to Las Vegas; and that Deveny
operated from a place that Rogers referred to as the "Cache," several
miles up the valley.

Latimer, a tawny giant of a man with a long, hooked nose, and thin, cruel
lips, interested Harlan. He watched the man when the other was not
conscious of his glances, noting the bigness of him, his slow,
panther-like movements; the glowing, savage truculence of his eyes; the
hard, bitter droop of his lips under the yellow mustache he wore. He felt
the threat of the man when the latter looked at him--it was personal,
intense--seeming to have motive behind it. It aroused in Harlan a
responsive passion.

One day, seated on a bench in front of the long bunkhouse near the Star
ranchhouse, Harlan was watching some of the men who were playing cards
near him. They were lounging in the grass, laughingly pitting their skill
against one another, while another group, in front of the stable, was
diligently repairing saddles.

Apart from the two groups were Lanky, Poggs, and Latimer. They were
standing near the corral fence, about a hundred feet from where Harlan
sat. The subject of their talk was unpleasant, for their faces reflected
the venomous passions that inspired it.

Latimer had been watching Harlan--his gaze boldly hostile and full of a
hate that was unmistakable.

And Harlan had not been unaware of Latimer's gaze; he had noted the
wolfish gleam in the other's eyes--and because he was interested in
Latimer, he watched him covertly.

But Harlan had betrayed no sign that he knew Latimer was watching him;
and when he saw Strom Rogers coming toward him from the stable, he
grinned at him and made room for him when the latter headed for the bench
upon which Harlan was sitting.

"Lazy day," offered Rogers as he dropped on the bench beside Harlan; "not
a heap doin'." He did not look at Harlan, but leaned forward, took up a
cinch buckle that had been lying in the sand at his feet, and turned it
idly over and over in his hands, apparently intent on its construction.

With his head down, so that even the card-players could not see his lips
move, he whispered to Harlan:

"Don't let 'em see you know I'm talkin'! They're framin' up on you!"

Harlan grinned, shielding his lips with a hand that he passed casually
over them.

"Meanin' Latimer--an' his friends?" he said.

"Yep. Latimer's jealous of you. Been jealous. Thinks he can match your
gunplay--itchin' for trouble--bound to have it out with you. We was at
the Cache last night, an' I heard him an' Deveny yappin' about it.
Deveny's back of him--he's sore about the way you handed it to him in
Lamo. Keep your eyes peeled; they're pullin' it off pretty soon.
Latimer's doin' the shootin'--he's tryin' to work himself up to it. Be
careful."

"I'm thankin' you." Harlan leaned back, crossed his legs, and stared off
into space, the light in his eyes becoming vacuous. He seemed not to be
interested in Latimer and the other two, but in reality he saw them
distinctly. But they had their backs to him now, and were slowly
sauntering toward the stable door.

"So Deveny ain't admirin' me none?" he said to Rogers.

"Not scarcely. No more than a gopher is admirin' a side-winder."

"Latimer," said Harlan, "don't like my style of beauty either. I've been
noticin' it. He's a mighty interestin' man. If I wasn't dead sure he
ain't the kind of a guy which goes around shootin' folks in the back, I'd
say he pretty near fits the description I got of the man who helped
Dolver salivate my side-kicker, Davey Langan, over in Pardo--a couple of
months ago."

Rogers' side glance was pregnant with a grim, unsmiling humor.

"So you've picked him out? I've been wonderin' how long it would take
you."

The emotion that passed over Harlan was not visible. It might have been
detected, however, by the slight leap in his voice.

"You an' Latimer is bosom friends, I reckon?"

"Shucks!"

Rogers' glance met Harlan's for a fleeting instant.

"This gang needs cleanin' up," said Rogers. He got up, and stood in front
of Harlan, holding out the cinch buckle, as though offering it to the
other. For both men had seen that Latimer had left his friends at the
stable door and was coming slowly toward the bunkhouse.

"You'll have to be slick," warned Rogers. "He's comin'. I'll be moseyin'
out of the way."

He moved slowly from the bench, passed the group of card-players, and
walked to the ranchhouse, where he hung the cinch buckle on a nail driven
into the wall of the building. Then he slowly turned, facing the bench
upon which Harlan still sat, and toward which Latimer was walking.

It was evident that all of the men in the vicinity were aware of the
threatened clash, for their manner, upon the approach of Latimer,
indicated as much.

For weeks they had been eager to test the traditional quickness of Harlan
with the weapons that swung at his hips--those weapons had been a
constant irritation to some of them, and an object of speculation to all.
And when the night before some of them had heard the whispered word that
Latimer--with Deveny's sanction--indeed with Deveny's encouragement--was
determined to clash with Harlan, they had realized that the moment for
which they had yearned was at hand.

For they had seen in Harlan's eyes--and had felt in the atmosphere that
surrounded the man--the certainty that he would not refuse the clash with
Latimer. The only question in their minds concerning Harlan was that of
his speed and accuracy. And so when they saw Latimer coming they ceased
playing cards and sat, interestedly watching--alert to note how Latimer
would bring about the clash, and how Harlan would meet it.

Latimer had nerved himself for the ordeal by talking with his friends.
The will to kill Harlan had been in his heart for a long time, but he
needed to reinforce it with an artificial rage. And, dwelling, with his
friends, upon the irritating fact that Harlan had come among them to
usurp authority to which he had no visible claim, he had succeeded in
working his rage to a frenzy that took little account of consequences.

Yet Latimer would not have been able to reach that frenzy had he not been
convinced that he was Harlan's master with the six-shooter. He really
believed that Harlan had been overrated. He believed that because he
wanted to believe it, and because his contempt for the man had bred that
conviction in his heart.

Also, he thought he knew why Harlan had come to the Star--why he had
joined the outlaw camp. And the night before, he had communicated that
suspicion to Deveny. It was because Harlan knew he had been with Dolver
when Davey Langan had been killed. Latimer thought he had seen a slight
relief in Deveny's eyes when he had told the latter that, but he could
not be sure, and it was not important.

The important thing was that he must kill Harlan--and he meant to do it.
He would kill him fairly, if possible, thereby enhancing his
reputation--but he was certain to kill him, no matter what the method.

That conviction blazed in his eyes as he came to a halt within a dozen
paces of where Harlan was sitting. He had worked himself to such a pitch
of rage that it gripped him like some strong fever--bloating his face,
tensing his muscles, bulging his eyes.

Harlan had watched him; and his gaze was on the other now with a steady,
unwavering alertness that advertised his knowledge of what was impending.
But he sat, motionless, rigid, waiting Latimer's first hostile movement.

Harlan had turned a very little when Latimer had begun his walk toward
the bench; his right side was slightly toward the man, the leg partially
extended; while the left leg was doubled under the bench--seemingly to
give him leverage should he decide to rise.

But he gave no indication of meditating such a move. It was plain to the
watchers that if he attempted it Latimer would draw his gun and begin to
shoot.

Latimer was convinced also that Harlan would not attempt to rise. He had
Harlan at a disadvantage, and he laughed loudly, sardonically,
contemptuously as he stood, his right hand hovering close to his pistol
holster, his eyes aflame with hate and passion.

"Keep a-settin', you buzzard's whelp!" he sneered; "keep a-settin'!
Latimer's out to git you. You know it--eh? You've knowed it right
along--pretendin' not to. 'Drag' Harlan--bah! Gunslinger with a
record--an' caught a-settin'. Caught with the goods on, sneakin' in here,
tryin' to ketch a man unawares.

"Bah! Don't I know what you're here for? It's me! You blowed Dolver apart
for killin' that damned, slick-eyed pardner of yourn--Davey Langan. Do
you want to know who sent Langan out? I'm tellin' you--it was me!
Me--me!"

He fairly yelled the last words, and stiffened, holding the fingers of
his right hand clawlike, above the butt of the holstered pistol.

And when he saw that Harlan did not move; that he sat there rigid, his
eyes unblinking and expressionless; his right hand hanging limply at his
side, near the partially extended leg; his left hand resting upon the
thigh of the doubled leg--he stepped closer, watching Harlan's right
hand.

For a space--while one might have counted ten--neither man moved a
muscle. Something in Harlan's manner sent into Latimer's frenzied brain
the message that all was not what it seemed--that Harlan was meditating
some astonishing action. Ten seconds is not long, as times goes, but
during that slight interval the taut nerves of Latimer's were twanged
with a torturing doubt that began to creep over him.

Would Harlan never make that move? That question was dinned insistently
into Latimer's ears. He began to believe that Harlan did not intend to
draw.

And then----

"Ah!"

It was Latimer's lungs that breathed the ejaculation.

For Harlan's right hand had moved slightly upward, toward the pistol at
his right hip. It went only a few inches; it was still far below the
holster when Latimer's clawlike fingers descended to the butt of his own
weapon. The thought that he would beat Harlan in a fair draw was in his
mind--that he would beat him despite the confusion of the hesitating
motion with which Harlan got his gun out.

Something was happening, though--something odd and unexplainable. For
though Latimer had seemed to have plenty of time, he was conscious that
Harlan's gun was belching fire and death at him. He saw the smoke
streaks, felt the bullets striking him, searing their way through him,
choking him, weakening his knees.

He went down, his eyes wide with incredulity, filling with hideous
self-derision when he saw that the pistol which had sent his death to him
was not in Harlan's right hand at all, but in his left.

Harlan got up slowly as Latimer stretched out in the dust at his
feet--casting one swift glance at the fallen man to satisfy himself that
for _him_ the incident was ended. Then, with the gaze of every man in the
outfit upon him, he strode toward the stable, where Lanky and Poggs were
standing, having witnessed the death of their confederate.

They stiffened to immobility as they watched Harlan's approach, knowing
that for them the incident was not closed--their guilt plain in their
faces.

And when Harlan halted in front of them they stood, not moving a muscle,
their eyes searching Harlan's face for signs that they too, were to
receive a demonstration of the man's uncanny cleverness.

"You was backin' Latimer's play," said Harlan, shortly. "I'm aimin' to
play the string out. Pull--or I'll blow you apart!"

Poggs and Lanky did not "pull." They stood there, ghastly color stealing
into their faces, their eyes wide with the knowledge that death would be
the penalty of a hostile movement.

Harlan's pistol was again in its holster, and yet they had no desire to
provoke the man to draw it. The furtive gleam in the eyes of both
revealed the hope that gripped them--that some of the watchers would
interfere.

But not a man moved. Most of them had been stunned by the rapidity of
Harlan's action--by the deftness with which he had brought his left hand
into use. They had received the practical demonstration for which they
all had longed, and each man's manner plainly revealed his decision to
take no part in what was transpiring.

They remained in their places while Harlan--understanding that Poggs and
Lanky would not accept his invitation--spoke gruffly to them:

"This camp ain't got any room for skunks that go to framin' up on any of
the boys. Today you done it to me--tomorrow you'd try to pull it off on
some other guy.

"You're travelin'--pronto. You're gettin' your cayuses. Then you're
hittin' the breeze away from here--an' not comin' back. That lets you
out. Mosey!"

He stood watchful, alert, while the men roped their horses, got their
"war-bags," from the bunkhouse, mounted, and rode away without looking
back. Then he walked over to the bench where he had been sitting when
Rogers had warned him of the plan to kill him; ordered several of the men
to take Latimer's body away, and then resumed his place on the bench,
where he rolled a cigarette.

Later, when the men who had gone with Latimer's body returned to the
vicinity of the ranchhouse, Harlan was still sitting on the bench.

No man said a word to him, but he saw a new respect in the eyes of all of
them--even in Rogers' gaze--which had not strayed from him for an instant
during the trouble.

And a little later, when Rogers walked to the bench and sat beside him,
the other men had resumed their various pastimes as though nothing had
happened.

Again Rogers whispered to him, lowly, admiringly:

"This camp is yours, man, whenever you say the word!"



CHAPTER XXI

THE BLACK-BEARDED MAN


It was Strom Rogers who indicated to the outlaws at the Star that
henceforth Harlan was to exercise authority of a kind that had formerly
been vested in Haydon and Deveny.

The corral was packed to suffocation with cattle, threatening the health
of the animals; Deveny had sent no word from the Cache regarding the
disposal of the stock, and Haydon's whereabouts were unknown.

Rogers had moved stock on his own initiative in former days--for he had
been an able assistant to both leaders. And Rogers could have moved the
stock out of the corral and to the point far south where the outlaws had
always sold them.

But there was malice in Rogers' heart toward the two outlaw leaders, and
a perverse devil lurked in him. For many months he had worshiped Barbara
Morgan from a distance, vaguely aware that his passion for her could
never be realized. But there was a spark of honesty and justice in Rogers
despite his profession, and a sincere admiration for the girl that
admitted of no thought of evil toward her.

He had almost betrayed his resentment to Deveny when in Lamo, on the day
of the coming of Harlan, Deveny had boldly announced his intentions
toward the girl; and it had been a dread of clashing with Deveny that had
kept him from interfering. The will to protect the girl had been in
Rogers' mind, but he lacked the physical courage to risk his life for
her.

This man who had boldly entered the outlaw camp, after first defying
Deveny in Lamo, had made a stirring appeal to the good in Rogers; and he
foresaw that trouble, in which Harlan had a chance to emerge victorious,
was certain. And he had decided to align himself with the Pardo gunman.

Therefore, on this morning, when it was certain that the cattle in the
corral must be moved, he deliberately refused to exercise his
prerogative. Instead, he waited until after breakfast--when the men were
congregated outside the bunkhouse door--when he was certain they would
all hear him.

Harlan had come out, too. He had not visited the Rancho Seco for more
than a week, fearing that his absence might jeopardize the advantage he
had gained over the men through the killing of Latimer.

With the attention of all the men centered upon him, Rogers walked close
to Harlan, speaking loudly:

"Them cattle ought to hit the trail, Harlan. It's up to you--you're the
boss. Do we move 'em--an' where?"

A comprehensive light gleamed in Harlan's eyes.

"They move," he said shortly. "Drive them where you've been drivin'
them."

As though he had been giving orders to the outlaws all his life, he
briskly mentioned the names of the men who were to form the trail herd.

Not a man dissented. Those whose names were called quickly detached
themselves from the group, and sought the horse corral; where they roped
their horses and began to make preparations to obey Harlan's order. And
later, when the cattle were driven out of the corral, and the trail herd
crew straggled behind them over the level that led southward, the men
were grinning.

For Harlan had told them that their share of the spoils resulting from
the sale of the cattle was to be materially increased. He had likewise
told them that they might spend an extra day in "town" before their
return.

Only one man besides Harlan remained at the Star after the herd vanished
into the southern distance. That man was the black-bearded fellow who had
escorted Harlan to the ranchhouse on the occasion of his first
visit--Lafe Woodward.

This man's admiration for Harlan had never been concealed. He had stayed
as close to Harlan as possible; and from his manner Harlan had divined
that the man was eager to ingratiate himself.

Woodward stood near Harlan as the herd and the men vanished. He had
grinned widely when, just before the outfit had departed, he had heard
Rogers whisper to Harlan:

"You've made yourself solid with the bunch, for sure, by offerin' 'em a
bigger divvy. They've been grumblin' about it for a long time. They're
all sore at Haydon an' Deveny for bein' greedy. But you're sure cookin'
up a heap of trouble with Haydon an' Deveny!"

Harlan grinned with grim mirthlessness. It had been his first opportunity
to stir up dissension and strife in the outlaw camp, and he had taken
instant advantage of it. He had created factional feeling, and he was
prepared to accept the consequences.

And, later in the day, when he saw Haydon ride in, dismount and cast a
surprised glance at the empty corral, he knew that the moment for which
he had planned, had come.

Woodward was nowhere in sight; and Harlan, who had been in the
blacksmith-shop, made himself visible to Haydon by stepping outside.

Haydon called to him, sharply; and Harlan walked slowly to where the
outlaw chief stood, a saturnine grin on his face, his eyes alight with a
cold humor that might have been illuminating to Haydon had he taken the
trouble to look into them.

Haydon was laboring under some strong passion. He was suppressing it with
an effort, but it showed in his tensed muscles and in his flushed face.

"Where are the cattle?" he demanded, his voice a trifle hoarse.

"They're headed for Willow Wells--where you've been sellin' them."

"By whose orders?" Haydon's voice was choked with passion.

"Mine," drawled Harlan. Harlan might have explained that the stock had
been suffering in the crowded enclosure, thus assuaging Haydon's wrath.
But he gave no explanation--that would have been a revelation of
eagerness to escape blame and the possible consequences of his act.
Instead of explaining he looked steadily into Haydon's eyes, his own cold
and unblinking.

He saw Haydon's wrath flare up--it was in the heightened color that
spread upward above the collar of his shirt; he saw the man's terrific
effort at self-control; and his look grew bitter with insolence.

"What's botherin' you?" he said.

"The cattle--damn it!" shouted Haydon. "What in hell do you mean by
sending them away without orders?"

"I'm havin' my say, Haydon. We agreed to split everything three ways.
Authority to give orders goes with that. That was the agreement. A man's
got to be either a captain or a private, an' I've never played second to
any man. I ain't beginnin' now."

"Why, damn you!" gasped Haydon. His eyes were aglare with a terrible rage
and hate; he stepped backward a little, bending his right arm, spreading
the fingers.

Harlan had made no move, but the light in his eyes betrayed his complete
readiness for the trouble that Haydon plainly meditated.

"Yes," he said, slowly, drawling his words, a little! "It's come to that,
I reckon. You've got to flash your gun now, or take it back. No man
cusses me an' gets away with it. Get goin'!"

Haydon stood, swaying from side to side, in the grip of a mighty
indecision. The fingers of his right hand spread wider; the hand
descended to a point nearer to his pistol holster.

There it poised, the fingers hooked, like the talons of some giant bird
about to clutch a victim.

Had Haydon faced a man with less courage; had Harlan's iron control
lacked that quality which permitted him to give an enemy that small
chance for life which he always gave them, death might have reigned at
the Star again. Haydon owed his life to that hesitation which had made
Harlan famous.

And as the strained, tense seconds passed with both men holding the
positions they had assumed, it seemed Haydon was slowly beginning to
realize that Harlan was reluctant, was deliberately giving him a chance.

A change came over Haydon. The clawlike fingers began to straighten;
imperceptibly at first, and then with a spasmodic motion that flexed the
muscles in little jerks. The hand became limp; it dropped slowly to his
side--down beyond the pistol holster. Then it came up, and the man swept
it over his eyes, as though to brush away a vision that frightened him.

His face grew pale, he shuddered; and at last he stood, swaying a little,
his mouth open with wonder for the phenomenal thing that had happened to
him.

Harlan's voice, cold and expressionless, startled him:

"You wasn't meanin' to cuss me?"

"No!" The denial was blurted forth. Haydon grinned, faintly, with hideous
embarrassment; the knowledge that he had been beaten, and that he owed
his life to Harlan, was plain in his eyes.

He laughed, uncertainly, as he made an effort to stiffen his lagging
muscles.

"I was a bit flustered, Harlan; I talked rather recklessly, I admit. You
see, I've been used to giving orders myself. I was riled for a minute."

"That goes!" said Harlan, shortly. His voice had changed. The slow drawl
had gone, and a snapping, authoritative sharpness had replaced it.

Haydon gazed at him with a new wonder. He sensed in Harlan's manner the
consciousness of power, the determination to command. At a stroke, it
seemed, Harlan had wrenched from him the right to rule. He felt himself
being relegated to a subordinate position; he felt at this minute the
ruthless force of the man who stood before him; he felt oddly impotent
and helpless, and he listened to Harlan with a queer feeling of wonder
for the absence of the rage that should have gripped him.

"I'm runnin' things from now on," Harlan said. "I ain't interferin' with
the Star. But I'm runnin' things for the boys. I told Rogers to drive the
cattle to Willow's Wells--an' to sell them. I've promised the boys a
bigger divvy. They get it. I've told them to take a day off, in town,
after they turn the cattle over.

"There's got to be a new deal. The boys are fussed up--claimin' they
ain't gettin' their share. I'm seein' that they do. You can't run a camp
like this an' not treat the boys right."

The wonder that had been aroused in Haydon grew as Harlan talked; it
increased in intensity until, when Harlan's voice died away, it developed
into suspicion.

That was what Harlan had come to the Star for! He wanted to run the camp,
to direct the activities of the outlaws in the valley. Power! Authority!
Those were the things Harlan craved for.

Haydon saw it all, now. He saw that Harlan wanted to dominate--everything.
He wanted to rule the outlaw camp; he wanted to run the Rancho Seco; he
intended to get possession of the gold that Morgan had left, and he wanted
Barbara Morgan.

The rage that had held Haydon in its clutch when he had called Harlan to
him was reviving. Haydon's face was still white, but the fury in his
eyes--slowly growing--was not to be mistaken.

Harlan saw it, and his lips straightened. He had expected Haydon would
rage over what he had determined to tell him; and he was not surprised.
He had deliberately goaded the man into his present fury. He had
determined to kill him, and he had been disappointed when he had seen
Haydon lose his courage when the crisis arrived. And now his deliberate
and premeditated plan was to bear fruit.

Harlan was reluctant to kill, but there seemed to be no other way. Haydon
was a murderer. He had killed Lane Morgan; he was an outlaw whose rule
had oppressed the valley for many months. If Harlan could have devised
some plan that would make it possible for him to attain his end without
killing anybody, he would have eagerly adopted it.

But in this country force must be fought with force. It was a grim game,
and the rules were inflexible--kill or be killed.

His own life would be safe in this section so long as he guarded it.
Eternal vigilance and the will to take life when his own was threatened
was a principle which custom had established. If he expected to save the
girl at the Rancho Seco he could not temper his actions with mercy. And
he knew that if he was to succeed in his design to disrupt the outlaw
gang he would have to remove the man who stood before him, working
himself into a new frenzy. There seemed to be no other way.

But Haydon seemed to have control of himself, now, despite the frenzied
glare of his eyes. He was outwardly cool; his movements were
deliberate--he had conquered his fear of Harlan, it seemed.

He laughed, harshly.

"Harlan," he said; "you had me going--talking that way. By Heaven! you
almost convinced me that I'd _let_ you run things here. I was beginning
to believe I'd lost my nerve. But see here!"

He held out his right hand toward Harlan--it was steady, rigid, not a
nerve in it quivered.

"You're fast with your guns, but you can't run any whizzer in on me--you
can't intimidate me. You killed Latimer the other day; and you've got the
boys with you. But you can't run things here. Have all the boys gone?"

"Woodward's here."

Harlan spoke lowly; his eyes were keenly watchful. This flare-up on
Haydon's part was merely a phase of his confused mental condition. He saw
that Haydon did not mean to use his gun--that he intended to ignore it,
no doubt planning to regain his authority when the men of the outfit
returned--when he might enlist the support of some of them.

"Woodward's here--eh?" laughed Haydon. He raised his voice, shouting for
the man. And Harlan saw Woodward come from behind an outbuilding, look
toward the ranchhouse, and then walk slowly toward them.

Woodward halted when within several paces of the two, and looked from one
to the other curiously, his eyes narrowed with speculation.

"Woodward," directed Haydon; "hit the breeze after the outfit and tell
them to drive those cattle back here!"

Harlan grinned. "Woodward," he said, gently; "you climb on your cayuse
an' do as Haydon tells you. Haydon is figurin' on cashin' in when you
do."

Haydon blustered. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that if Woodward goes after the boys I'm goin' to blow you apart.
I'm givin' the orders around here!"

Watching Haydon, Harlan saw that he was not exhibiting rage, but intense
interest. He was not looking at Harlan, but at Woodward. And, turning
swiftly, his guns both leaping into his hands with the movement--for he
had a swift suspicion that Woodward might be standing with Haydon against
him--he saw that Woodward had fallen into a crouch; that the man's right
hand was hovering over his pistol holster, and that his eyes were
gleaming with a light that could mean only the one thing--murder.

Backing slowly away from both Haydon and Woodward, Harlan watched them,
his guns ready for instant action should he catch any sign that would
indicate trickery toward himself.

He saw no such signs. It became plain to him that Woodward had no eyes
for anyone but Haydon, and that Haydon's attention was fixed upon
Woodward with an intentness that meant he had divined that Woodward's
peculiar manner had a definite, personal meaning.

Woodward continued to advance on Haydon. He was waving his left hand as
though giving Harlan a silent order to get out of his way, while his gaze
was centered upon Haydon with an unspoken promise of violence,
fascinating to behold.

It seemed to have fascinated Haydon. Harlan saw him shrink back, the
bluster gone out of him, his face the color of ashes. He kept stepping
back, until he brought up against the rear wall of the ranchhouse; and
there he stood, watching Woodward, his eyes bulging with dread wonder.

Harlan saw his lips move; heard his voice, hoarse and throaty:

"It's a frame-up--a frame-up. Both of you are out to get me!"

"Frame-up!"

This was Woodward. He was a sinister figure, with his black beard seeming
to bristle with passion, his eyes flaming with it; all his muscles tensed
and quivering, and his right hand, with clawlike fingers, poised above
the butt of his pistol.

"Frame-up!" he repeated, laughing hoarsely between his teeth. "Hell's
fire! Do you think it takes two men to 'get' you--you miserable whelp?

"I've been waitin' for this day--waitin' for it, waitin' to get you
alone--waitin' for the boys to go so's I could tell you somethin'.

"You know what it is. You ain't guessin', eh? Listen while I tell you
somethin'. The day 'Drag' Harlan got in Lamo he brought news that Lane
Morgan had been killed out in the desert. I heard the boys sayin' you had
a hand in it. But I thought that was just talk. I didn't believe you was
that kind of a skunk. I waited.

"Then you sent me over to the edge of the level, near the Rancho
Seco--where Harlan found that flattened grass when he rode over here. You
told me to watch Harlan and Barbara Morgan. You said you thought Harlan
would try some sneak game with her.

"You can gamble I watched. I saw Harlan standin' guard over her; I saw
him follow that sneak Lawson. I heard the shot that killed Lawson, an' I
saw Harlan tote him downstairs, an' then set on the door-sill all night,
guardin' Barbara Morgan.

"The sneakin' game was played by you, Haydon. When I saw Harlan headin'
toward the valley the day he come here, I lit out ahead of him. And when
he got to the timber over there I brought him in.

"An' I heard you talk that day. I heard him sayin' that you killed Lane
Morgan. He said my dad told him you fired the shot that killed him."

Harlan started and leaned forward, amazed. But Haydon swayed, and then
steadied himself with an effort, and stared at Woodward with bulging,
incredulous eyes.

"Your _dad_?" he almost shrieked; "Lane Morgan was your father?"

Woodward's grin was wolfish. He took two or three steps toward
Haydon--panther-like steps that betrayed the lust that was upon him.

"I'm Billy Morgan," he said, his teeth showing in a merciless grin;
"Barbara's brother. Flash your gun, Haydon; I'm goin' to kill you!"

Haydon clawed for his pistol, missing the butt in his eagerness, and
striving wildly to draw it. It snagged on a rawhide thong that supported
the holster and his fingers were loosening in the partial grip when Billy
Morgan shot him.

He flattened against the wall of the ranchhouse for an instant, staring
wildly around him; then his head sagged forward and he slid down the wall
of the ranchhouse into the deep dust that was mounded near it.



CHAPTER XXII

A DEAD MAN WALKS


Harlan had paid strict attention to Lane Morgan's words at Sentinel Rock,
and he remembered that Morgan had told him that his son, whom he had
called "Bill," had left the Rancho Seco on some mission for the governor.
Evidently it had not occurred to Morgan that his son's mission had taken
him only to the valley in which reigned those outlaws Morgan had reviled.

But it was plain to Harlan that "Billy" was here--he had said so himself,
and he had given proof that he had been watchful and alert to Barbara's
interests. And now was explained young Morgan's interest in himself. The
thought that during all the days he had spent at the Rancho Seco, his
movements had been watched by the man who had just killed Haydon, brought
a glow of ironic humor to Harlan's eyes.

During a long interval, through which Billy Morgan stood over Haydon,
watching him with a cold savagery, Harlan kept at a respectable distance,
also watching.

He saw that for Haydon the incident had been fatal. The man's body did
not move after it slipped to the ground beside the ranchhouse wall. Yet
Morgan watched until he was certain; then he slowly wheeled and looked at
Harlan.

"That settles him--damn him!" he said, with a breathlessness that told of
the intense strain he had been laboring under.

Still Harlan did not speak; and his guns were in their holsters when
Morgan walked close to him, grinning wanly.

"I had to do it. There's no use tryin' to depend on the law in this
country. You've seen that, yourself."

"I've noticed it," grinned Harlan. "You're feelin' bad over it. I
wouldn't. If it had been my dad he killed I couldn't have done any
different. I reckon any man with blood in him would feel that way about a
coyote like that killin' his father. If men don't feel that way, why do
they drag murderers to courts--where they have courts--an' ask the law to
kill them. That's just shovin' the responsibility onto some other guy.

"I've handed several guys their pass-out checks, an' I ain't regrettin'
one of them. There wasn't one of them that didn't have it comin' to him.
They was lookin' for it, mostly, an' had to have it. I've heard of guys
that had killed a man feelin' squeamish over it--with ghosts visitin'
them at night; an' sufferin' a lot of mental torture. I reckon any man
would feel that way if he'd killed an inoffensive man--or a good man, or
one that hadn't been tryin' to murder him." He grinned again. "Why, I'm
preachin'!"

And now into his gaze as he looked at Morgan, came cold reproach.

"You wasn't figurin' to let Barbara play it a lone hand?" he said.

"Hell's fire--no!" denied Morgan, his eyes blazing. "I've been watchin'
the Rancho Seco--as I told Haydon. I saw Barbara set out for Lamo. There
was no one followin' her, an' so I thought she'd be all right. That mixup
at Lamo slipped me. But I seen you an' Barbara come back, an' I heard the
boys talkin' about what happened at Lamo. I'd heard of you, too; an' when
I seen you come back with Barbara I watched you. An' I seen you was
square, so I trusted you a heap.

"An' I had a talk with Sheriff Gage about you, an' he told me my dad had
sent to Pardo for you, through Dave Hallowell, the marshal of Pardo. Gage
said you was out to clean up Deveny an' Haydon, an' so I knowed I could
depend on you."

"Barbara don't know you're hangin' around here--she ain't known it?"

"Shucks, I reckon not," grinned Morgan. "I didn't come here for six
months after I left the Rancho Seco--until I growed a beard. Barbara's
been within a dozen feet of me, an' never knowed me. I've been thinkin'
of telling her, but I seen Haydon was sweet on her, an' I didn't dare
tell her. Women ain't reliable. She'd have showed it some way, an' then
there'd have been hell to pay."

"An' I've been pridin' myself on takin' care of Barbara," said Harlan. "I
feel a heap embarrassed an' useless--just like I'd been fooled."

"You've done a thing I couldn't do," confessed Morgan; "you've busted
Haydon's gang wide open. If you hadn't showed up there'd have been
nothin' done. There's some of the boys that ain't outlaws--boys that are
with me, havin' sneaked into the gang to help me out. But we wan't makin'
no headway to speak of."

Harlan looked at Haydon. "That guy was educated," he said. "What was his
game? I've felt all along that there was somethin' big back of him--that
he wasn't here just to steal cattle an' rob folks, an' such."

"You ain't heard," smiled Morgan. "Of course you wouldn't--unless Gage
had gassed to you.

"There's a gang of big men in Frisco, an' in the East, figurin' to run a
railroad through the basin. A year or so ago there was secret talk of it
in the capital. It leaked out that the railroad guys was intendin' to run
their road through the basin. They was goin' to build a town right where
the Rancho Seco lays; an' they was plannin' to irrigate a lot of the land
around there. The governor says it was to be big--an' likely it'll be
big, when they get around to it.

"But them things go slow, an' a gang of cheap crooks got wise to it. They
sent Haydon down here, to scare the folks in the basin into sellin' out
for a song. They've scared one man out--a Pole from the west end. But the
others have stuck. Looks like they was figurin' on grabbin' the Rancho
Seco without payin' _anything_ for it--Haydon intendin', I reckon, to put
dad an' me out of the way an' marry Barbara. Then he could have cut the
ranch up into town lots an' made a mint of coin."

"An' Deveny?"

"Deveny's a wolf. Haydon brought him here from Arizona--where he'd
terrorized a whole county, runnin' it regardless. He figured to cash in,
I reckon, but he's been grabbin' up everything he could lay his hands on,
on the way."

"You'll be tellin' Barbara, now?" suggested Harlan.

"You're shoutin'!" said Morgan, his eyes glowing. "I'm hittin' the breeze
to the Rancho Seco for fair." He looked at Haydon, and his eyes took on a
new expression. "I was almost forgettin' what the governor sent me here
for," he added. "The governor was wantin' to know who is behind Haydon
an' Deveny, an' I'm rummagin' around in Haydon's office to find out.
Goin'?" he invited.

Both looked down at Haydon as they passed him, and an instant later they
were entering a door of the ranchhouse.

They had hardly disappeared when Haydon's head moved slightly.

His eyes were open; he glanced at the door of the ranchhouse through
which Harlan and Morgan had entered. Then he raised his head, dragged
himself to an elbow--upon which he rested momentarily, his face betraying
the bitter malignance and triumph that had seized him.

He had realized that Morgan had meant to kill him, even before Morgan had
revealed his identity, and his backward movement, which had brought him
against the wall of the ranchhouse had been made with design. He had felt
that even if he should succeed in beating Morgan, Harlan would have taken
up the quarrel, for he knew that Harlan also had designs on his life. And
with a cupidity aroused over the desperate predicament in which he found
himself, he had decided to take a forlorn chance.

Morgan's bullet had struck him, but by a convulsive side movement at the
instant Morgan's gun roared Haydon had escaped a fatal wound, and the
bullet had entered his left side above the heart, paralyzing one of the
big muscles of the shoulder.

His left arm was limp and useless, and dragged in the dust as he squirmed
around and gained his feet. There was no window in the wall of the
ranchhouse on that side; and he backed away, staggering a little, for he
had lost much blood. He kept the blank wall before him as he backed away
from the house; and when he reached his horse he was a long time getting
into the saddle. But he accomplished it at last; and sent the horse
slowly up the slope and into the timber out of which Harlan had ridden
with the black-bearded man on the day of his first visit to the Star.

Back where the trail converged with the main trail that ran directly up
the valley, Haydon, reeling in the saddle, sent his horse at a faster
pace, heading it toward the Cache where he was certain he would find
Deveny. And as he rode the triumph in his eyes grew. For he had heard
every word of the conversation between Harlan and Morgan, and he hoped to
get to the Cache before the two men discovered the trick he had played
upon them--before they could escape.



CHAPTER XXIII

DEVENY SECEDES


Since the day he had heard that Harlan had appeared at the Star and had
been taken into the outlaw band by Haydon, Deveny had exhibited fits of a
sullen moroseness that had kept his closest friends from seeking his
companionship. Those friends were few, for Deveny's attitude toward his
men had always been that of the ruthless tyrant; he had treated them with
an aloofness that had in it a contempt which they could not ignore.
More--he was merciless, and had a furious temper which found its outlet
in physical violence.

Deveny was a fast man with the big Colt that swung at his hip, a deadly
marksman, and he needed but little provocation to exhibit his skill. For
that reason his men kept the distance Deveny had established between
them--never attempting familiarity with him.

Deveny had heard from a Star man the story of Harlan's coming to the Star
and when a day or so later Haydon rode into the Cache, Deveny was in a
state of furious resentment.

There had been harsh words between Haydon and Deveny; the men of the
Cache had no difficulty in comprehending that Deveny's rage was bitter.

Not even when Haydon told him that his acceptance of Harlan had been
forced by circumstances, and that he was tricking Harlan into a state of
fancied security in which he could the more easily bring confusion upon
him did Deveny agree.

"You're a damned fool, Haydon!" he told the other, his face black with
passion. "That guy is slick as greased lightning--and faster. And he
don't mean any good to the camp. He's out for himself."

Deveny did not intimate that his dislike of Harlan had been caused by the
latter's interference with his plans the day he had held Barbara Morgan a
prisoner in the room above the Eating-House in Lamo; but Haydon, who had
heard the details of the affair from one of his men, smiled knowingly.

It was not Haydon's plan to let Deveny know he knew of the affair, or
that he cared about it if he had heard. And so he did not mention it.

But in his heart was a rage that made his thoughts venomous; though he
concealed his emotions behind the bland, smooth smile of good-natured
tolerance.

"I'll handle him, Deveny," he said as he took leave of the other. "He'll
get his when he isn't expecting it."

Deveny, however, had no faith in Haydon's ability to "handle" Harlan. He
had seen in the man's eyes that day in Lamo something that had troubled
him--an indomitability that seemed to indicate that the man would do
whatever he set out to do.

But Deveny did not ride to the Star to see Harlan; he was reluctant to
stir outside the Cache, and for many days, while Harlan was attaining
supremacy at the Star, and while Haydon was absent on a mysterious
mission, Deveny kept close to the Cache, nursing his resentment against
Haydon, and deepening--with fancied situations--his hatred for Harlan.

It did not surprise Deveny when a Star man rode into the Cache one day
and told him that Harlan had killed Latimer in a gunfight, and that
Harlan was slowly but surely gaining a following among the men. The
information did not surprise Deveny; but it sent his mind into a chaos of
conjecture and speculation, out of which at last a conviction came--that
Harlan was seeking control of the outlaw band; that Haydon's days as a
leader were almost over, so far as he was concerned. For if Haydon
insisted on taking Harlan into the secret councils of the camp
he--Deveny--was going to operate independently.

The more his thoughts dwelt upon that feature the more attractive it
seemed to him. Independence of Haydon meant that he could do as he
pleased without the necessity of consulting anybody. He could rustle
whatever cattle he wanted--getting them where he could without following
Haydon's plans--which had always seemed rather nonsensical, embracing as
they did the scheme of railroad building and town sites; and he could do
as he pleased with Barbara Morgan, not having to consider Haydon at all.

It was that last consideration that finally decided Deveny. He was an
outlaw--not a politician; he robbed for gain, and not for the doubtful
benefits that might be got out of the building of a town. And when he
looked with desire upon a woman he didn't care to share her with another
man--not even Haydon.

For two or three days after the conviction seized Deveny, he pondered
over his chances, and when he reached a decision he acted with the
volcanic energy that had characterized his depredations in the basin.

On the morning of the day upon which Haydon returned to the Star to find
the cattle gone and Harlan in control, Deveny appeared to a dozen Cache
men who were variously engaged near the corral, ordering them to saddle
their horses.

Later, Deveny and his men rode southward across a low plateau that
connected the buttes near the entrance to the Cache with the low hills
that rimmed the basin. They traveled fast, and when they reached the
rimming hills they veered eastward upon a broad sand plain.

There was a grin on Deveny's face now--a grin which expressed craft,
duplicity, and bestial desire. And as he rode at the head of his men he
drew mental pictures that broadened his grin and brought into his eyes an
abysmal gleam.



CHAPTER XXIV

KIDNAPPED


Barbara Morgan had yielded to the fever of impatience which had afflicted
her during the latter days of Harlan's absence from the Rancho Seco. She
had been impatient ever since she had been forced to stay close to the
house by Harlan's orders; but she had fought it off until now, for she
had been interested in Harlan, and had felt a deep wonder over his
probable actions regarding her future.

She had known, of course, that real danger from Deveny existed, for the
incident in Lamo had convinced her of that, but she felt that Harlan's
fears for her were rather extravagant--it was rather improbable that
Deveny would come boldly to the Rancho Seco and attempt to carry her away
by force.

The clear, brilliant sunshine of the country dispelled so grotesque a
thought; the peaceful hills seemed to smile their denial; and the broad
level near the entrance to the basin sent a calm message of reassurance
to her.

She had known Red Linton for a long time--for he had been with her father
for nearly two seasons--and she had respected him for what he had seemed
to be, a quiet, rather humorous man who did his work well, though without
flourishes. He had never figured prominently in her thoughts, however,
until the day Harlan had appointed him foreman of the Rancho Seco, and
then her attention had been attracted to him because he had seemed
interested in her.

And she had noted that Linton's interest in her seemed to grow after
Harlan's departure. He had talked with her several times, and she had
questioned him about Harlan's whereabouts. But Linton had not seemed to
know; at least, if he did know, he kept his knowledge strictly to
himself, not even intimating that he knew where Harlan had gone.

Another thing she noted was that Linton seemed to have her under
surveillance. Whenever she left the house--even for a short ride
eastward--where Harlan had told her she might ride without danger--she
discovered that Linton immediately mounted his horse, to linger somewhere
in sight.

The knowledge that she was watched began to irritate her and this morning
she had got up with a determination to ride without company. With that
end in view she had kept Billy all night in the patio; and when rather
late in the morning she saw Linton riding eastward, she hurriedly threw
saddle and bridle on the horse and rode westward, toward the big basin.

She kept the house between her and the point where she had seen
Linton--until a turn northward became inevitable; and then she urged
Billy to a faster pace, in an endeavor to cross the wide plain that
reached to the entrance to the basin before Linton could see her.

Many times during the days before the coming of Deveny and Haydon to the
valley she had ridden there; it had been a place in which reigned a
mighty silence which she had loved, which had thrilled her. During those
other days she was in the habit of riding to a point several miles up the
valley--between the little basin where the Star was now and the Rancho
Seco.

The trail led upward in a slow, gradual slope to that point--a rugged
promontory that jutted out from a mesa that rose above the floor of the
valley. The mesa was fringed at the southern edge with stunt oak and
nondescript brush. But there were breaks in the fringe which permitted
her to ride close to the edge of the mesa; and from there she could look
many miles up the valley--and across it, where the solemn hills rimmed
the southern horizon, to a trail--called the South Trail by cattlemen in
the valley, to distinguish it from the main trail leading through the
mighty hollow in which she rode.

When she reached the mesa she headed Billy directly for the break on the
promontory. Dismounting, she stretched her legs to disperse the saddle
weariness; then she found a huge rock which had been the seat from which
she had viewed the wondrous landscape in the past.

The reverent awe with which she had always viewed the valley was as
strong in her today as it had ever been--stronger, in fact, because she
had not seen the place for some time, and because in her heart there now
dwelt a sadness that had not been there in those other days--at least
since her mother had died.

She was high above the floor of the valley; and she could see the main
trail below her weaving around low mounds and sinking into depressions;
disappearing into timber groves, reappearing farther on, disappearing
again, and again reappearing until it grew blurred and indistinct in her
vision.

In the marvelous clarity of the atmosphere this morning every beauteous
feature of the valley was disclosed to her inspection. The early morning
haze had lifted, and the few fleecy clouds that floated in the blue bowl
of sky were motionless, their majestic billows glowing in the sun. She
saw a Mexican eagle swoop over the cloud, sailing on slow wing high above
it, and growing so distant in her vision that he became a mere speck
moving in the limitless expanse of space.

It was a colossal landscape, and its creator had neglected no detail. And
it was harmonious, from the emerald green that carpeted the floor of the
valley near the gleaming river to the gigantic shoulders of the rugged
hills that lifted their huge, bastioned walls into the blue of the sky.
Some tall rock spires that thrust their peaks skyward far over on the
southern side of the valley had always interested her; they seemed to be
sentinels that guarded the place, hinting of an ages-old mystery that
seemed to reign all about them.

But there was mystery in everything in the valley, she felt; for it lay
before her, spreading, slumbrous, basking in the brilliant
sunlight--seeming to wait, as it seemed to have waited from the dawn of
the first day, for man to wonder over it.

She saw the Mexican eagle again after a while. It was making a wide
circle beyond the rock spires, floating lazily above them in long,
graceful swoops that were so lacking in effort that she longed to be up
there with him--to ride the air with him, to feel the exhilaration he
must feel.

As she looked, however, she caught a faint blur on the southern horizon
of the big picture--a yellowish-black cloud that hugged the horizon and
traveled rapidly eastward. It was some time before she realized that what
she saw was a dust cloud, and there were men in it--horsemen.

She got up from the rock, her face slowly whitening. And into her heart
came a presentiment that those men in the dust cloud were abroad upon an
errand of evil.

No doubt the presentiment was caused from the dread and fear she had
lived under for days--the consciousness that Deveny was in the valley,
and a recollection of the warnings that Harlan had given her. And she
knew the horsemen could not be Rancho Seco men--for they had gone
southward from the ranch, and there was no grass range where the horsemen
were riding. Also, the men were riding eastward, toward the Rancho Seco.

Trembling a little with apprehension, she mounted Billy and sent him down
the slope to the floor of the valley. The descent was hazardous, and
Billy did not make good time, but when he reached the level at the foot
of the slope he stretched his neck and fell into a steady, rapid pace
that took him down the valley swiftly.

As the girl rode, the presentiment of evil increased, and she grew
nervous with a conviction that she would not be able to reach the Rancho
Seco much in advance of the men. For she could see them more clearly now,
because they were in the valley, traveling a shelving trail that sloped
down from the hills toward the level that stretched to the ranchhouse.

It was several miles from where she rode to the point where the horsemen
were riding, and she was traversing a long ridge which must have revealed
her to the men if they looked toward her.

She had thought--after she had left the promontory--of concealing herself
somewhere in the valley, to wait until she discovered who the men were
and what their errand was; but she had a fear that if the men were
Deveny's outlaws they might return up the valley and accidentally come
upon her. Also, she had yielded to the homing instinct which is strong in
all living beings, for at home was safety that could not be found
elsewhere.

The South Trail, she knew, converged with the valley trail at the edge of
the level. If she could reach that point a few minutes before the
horsemen reached it she would rely on Billy to maintain his lead. Billy
would have to maintain it!

Leaning far over Billy's mane she urged him on, coaxing him, flattering
him, calling to him in terms of endearment. And the loyal little animal
did his best, running as he had never run before.

Barbara though, watching the horsemen with eyes into which there had come
a glow of doubt, began to realize that Billy was losing the race. Also,
by the time she had gone four or five miles, she discovered that the men
had seen her. For the trails were growing close together now--not more
than half a mile of slightly broken country stretched between them, and
she could see the men waving their hats; could hear their voices above
the whir and clatter of Billy's passing.

Still, she was determined to win, and Billy's flanks felt the sting of
the quirt that, hitherto, had swung from Barbara's wrist.

Billy revealed a marvelous burst of speed. But it did not last, and the
horsemen, after hanging for an instant abreast of Billy, began to forge
ahead.

The courageous little animal had almost reached the covert that Harlan
had discovered the day he had visited the Star the first time, and was
nobly answering the stern urge of the quirt when another horseman
suddenly appeared on the trail directly ahead of the girl, seemingly
having ridden out of the covert.

The trail was narrow, and Billy could not swerve around the new rider.
So, sensing the danger of a collision he stiffened his legs, making a
sliding halt that carried him a dozen feet, leaving him upon his haunches
with Barbara frantically trying to keep to the saddle.

Then Billy's forehoofs came down; he grunted, heaved a tremendous sigh
and stood, his legs braced, awaiting orders.

No order came. For no words escaped Barbara's lips. She sat in the
saddle, her face ashen, terror clutching her.

For the horseman who had ridden out of the covert was Stroud, the Rancho
Seco straw-boss. He was grinning, and in his eyes was a gloating triumph
that she could not mistake.

"Lucky I took a notion to come in this mornin'," he said. "I just got
here. I seen you hittin' the breeze for fair while you was quite a piece
up the basin; an' I seen Deveny an' the boys a-fannin' it, too. An' I
says to myself: 'Stroud, here's Deveny racin' to see Miss Barbara, an'
her actin' like she don't want to see him. But I'll fix it so she does.'"

The girl touched Billy with the quirt, and the little animal lunged
forward, close to Stroud's horse. As the two beasts came close together
Barbara struck at Stroud with the quirt, hoping to disconcert him so that
she could send Billy past him.

Stroud ducked and shot a hand out, seized the quirt and wrenched it from
her hand. She screamed as the hairloop scraped the flesh of her wrist.
And then she heard a thundering clatter of hoofs and saw Deveny and his
men appear from beyond the covert and race toward her.

Deveny spoke no word. But as he rode toward her she saw the gleam in his
eyes, and she silently fought Stroud, who had grasped her and was pulling
her toward him.

It seemed to her that Deveny must have misunderstood Stroud's action, for
it was clear to her--even in the stress and confusion of the moment--that
Deveny thought Stroud had attacked her through motives that were strictly
personal.

Anyway, before Stroud could speak Deveny's pistol glittered. And
malignantly, his eyes blazing with a jealous, evil light, he shot
Stroud--twice.

He sat in the saddle, his lips twitching into a sneer as he watched the
straw-boss tumble from his horse and fall limply into the grass. Then
with a smile that was hideous with a triumphant passion, he spurred his
horse to Billy's side, pulled the girl from the saddle, and sent his
horse up the valley, motioning his men to follow.



CHAPTER XXV

AMBUSHED


Red Linton had ridden eastward to examine the grass of the range in that
direction, for it had been some days since he had sent Stroud to the
southern range, and since the cattle had been there for some time before
that Linton felt they should be driven to fresh grass.

And yet, perhaps, Linton's search for good grass should not have taken
him so far from the ranchhouse, for he remembered his promise to Harlan
that he would not let Barbara out of his sight. But Barbara had made no
objection to his guardianship of her, so far, and he had longed for a
ride.

He worried a little, though, and felt guilty of something very like
treason to Harlan; and at last, not being able to ride farther with the
thoughts that fought with his desires, he wheeled his horse and sent it
scampering back toward the ranchhouse.

When he reached the ranchhouse he saw none of the men, for he had set
them at tasks inside the buildings; and he rode down to the ranchhouse,
resolved to have a talk with the girl.

When he rode around the near corner he saw that the _patio_ gate was
open. His horse leaped with the stern word he spoke to it, bringing him
swiftly to the gate, where he dismounted and threw open a door that led
into the house.

He called to Barbara, and receiving no answer, he ran from room to room,
not hesitating until he had explored them all.

Emerging from the house, he mounted his horse and sent him westward,
while he scanned the big level around him for sight of the girl.

She had always ridden into the valley in former days, he remembered--and
during the days of his guardianship she had more than once threatened to
ride there. And he had no doubt she had gone there now, out of
perverseness, just to irritate him.

He held his horse to a rapid pace as he crossed the level, and he was
still a mile distant from the covert where Barbara had met Stroud when he
saw a group of horsemen traveling rapidly up the valley.

Linton rode on, his anxiety acute, a grave suspicion afflicting him. And
when, after he had ridden a little farther, he saw Barbara's horse
trotting slowly toward him, the stirrups swinging and flopping emptily
against the saddle skirts, he drew a deep breath and brought his own
horse to a halt, while he sat motionless in the saddle, tortured by
bitter thoughts.

He had no doubt that what Harlan feared would happen, had happened--that
Deveny had come for Barbara. And Deveny had found her, through _his_
dereliction. He had relaxed his vigilance for only a short time, and
during that time Deveny had come.

Linton looked back toward the Rancho Seco. The distance to the ranchhouse
seemed to be interminable. He looked again up the valley, and saw that
the horsemen were growing indistinct. Within a few minutes, so rapid was
their pace, they would vanish altogether.

Linton thought of going back to the ranchhouse for the other men--that
was why he had looked in that direction. But if he wished to keep the
horsemen in sight he would not have time to get the other men. Before he
could get the men and return to where he now stood Deveny would have
taken the girl to that mysterious and unknown rendezvous in the hills in
which his band had always concealed themselves, and Barbara would be
lost.

Linton's lips straightened. He was to blame.

He knew the danger that would attend the action of following Deveny's men
up the valley. Other men had attempted to trail them, and they had been
found murdered, often with warnings upon them.

But Linton hesitated only momentarily. With a grim smile for his chances
of emerging unscathed from the valley, he urged his horse up the trail,
riding hard.

Several miles he had traveled, keeping the horsemen in sight, and he was
beginning to believe that he would succeed where others had failed, when,
passing through a clump of timber he detected movement in some brush at a
little distance back.

Divining that Deveny had seen him and had sent a man into the timber to
ambush him, Linton threw himself flat on the horse's mane. He felt a
bullet sing past him, coming from the right, and he got his pistol out
and was swinging its muzzle toward the point from which the bullet had
come when a gun roared at his left.

He felt a hot, searing pain in his side, and he reeled in the saddle from
the shock. Instantly another bullet struck him, coming from the right.
His pistol dropped from his weakening fingers, he toppled sidewise and
tumbled limply into the dust.

Shortly afterward, seemingly while he was in a state of coma, he heard
hoofbeats, rapidly growing distant.

He knew they were Deveny's men and he yielded to a vague wonder as to why
they had not made sure of their work.

Doggedly, and with long and bitter effort, Linton began to turn himself
so that he could get up. The pain from his wounds was excruciating, so
that each muscular effort brought a retching groan from him. Yet he kept
moving, twisting himself around until he got on his knees. From that
position he tried a number of times to get to his feet, but he failed
each time.

At last, though, with the help of a boulder that lay beside the trail, he
got his feet under him and stood for an instant, staggering weakly. Then
he began to move forward to his horse. When he managed at last to clutch
the saddle skirt he was reeling, his knees bending under him. However, he
managed to get one leg over the saddle, taking a long time to do it; and
eventually he was in the seat.

He spent another long interval lashing himself to the saddle with the
rope that he carried at the pommel; and then headed the horse toward the
Rancho Seco.

He began to ride, urging the horse to what seemed to him a rapid pace.
But he had not gone very far when he sagged against the pommel,
lifelessly.



CHAPTER XXVI

ROGERS TAKES A HAND


The trail herd had made good progress through the valley, and Rogers,
aided by the Star men, had kept them going. The men feared no
interference with the work, for they had terrorized the ranchers in the
valley until the latter well knew the futility of retaliatory measures.
Still, a certain furtive quickness of movement had always characterized
the operations of the outlaws--the instinct to move secretly, if
possible, and to strike swiftly when they struck was always strong in
them.

Besides, the drive to Willow's Wells was not a long one, and the cattle
could stand a fast pace. So it was not long after the herd had left the
Star until it straggled up a defile in the hills and out upon the level
where Deveny's men had to ride to take the south trail to the Rancho
Seco.

The level extended southward for a distance of several miles to a grass
range that the Star men knew well--for there had been times when they had
grazed cattle there, making camp on their frequent trips to the Wells.

A range of low, flat hills marked the northern limits of the grazing
section; and Rogers and his men trailed the cattle through the hills
while the morning was still young.

The herd was through the hills, and Rogers, twisting in the saddle, was
taking a last look over the plain to make certain there had been no
prying eyes watching the movements of himself and the men, when he saw,
far to the west, a group of horsemen just coming into view at the edge of
the plain--seemingly having ridden out of the big valley.

Rogers wheeled his horse and watched the horsemen as they traveled
eastward, making good time. He called to a man, named Colver, who was
riding close to him.

"Them's Deveny's men--from the Cache. What in blazes are they up to?
Somethin's in the wind, Colver--they're ridin' like the devil was after
them an' burnin' the breeze for fair!"

Rogers sent his horse scampering to the crest of one of the hills where,
concealed behind some brush, he watched the progress of Deveny's men
eastward.

When they passed the point on the plain where they would have to veer
northward if they intended to visit the Star, he breathed with relief.
For he had almost yielded to a conviction that Deveny _was_ headed for
the Star.

But after the horsemen passed the point that led to the Star trail, a new
anxiety seized Rogers--and a passion that sent the blood to his face
swept over him.

His eyes were glowing with an excitement that he could not repress when
he turned to Colver.

"Somethin's up!" he snapped. "Deveny's been sullen as hell for a good
many days--ever since Harlan came to the Star. One of the boys was
tellin' me he heard Deveny an' Haydon havin' it out over at the Cache. If
there's goin' to be a ruckus I'm goin' to be in on it!"

He leaped his horse off the hill, racing him down into the grass plain
after the other men. When he reached them he yelled sharply, and they
spurred quickly to him, anticipating from his manner that danger
threatened.

"I've got a hunch that hell's a-goin' to pop right sudden, boys," he told
them. "An' we're goin' away from it. If there's any trouble we want to be
in on it. Deveny's up to somethin'. You-all know about the agreement made
between Haydon an' Harlan--that Harlan was to run the Rancho Seco without
interference. Deveny's headed that way, an' Haydon ain't around. It's up
to us boys to keep our eyes open.

"Harlan's at the Star. He won't be knowin' that Deveny is headin' for the
Rancho Seco. Harlan's white, boys; he's done more for us guys since he's
been at the Star than Haydon or Deveny ever done for us. He's promised us
things that Haydon an' Deveny would never do. He's a white man, an' I'm
for him. An' I'm for takin' orders from him from now on. Who's with me?"

"You're shoutin'!" declared Colver.

"It's time for a new deal," muttered another.

"You're doin' the yappin'," grimly announced a big man who was close to
Rogers; "we're followin' your lead."

"I'm jumpin' for the Star then!" declared Rogers; "to put Harlan wise to
where Deveny's headed for. We're leavin' the herd here until we find out
what's goin' on. Half of you guys beat it to the Rancho Seco--trailin'
Deveny an' his boys, to find out what they're doin'. You're herd-ridin'
them if they go to monkeyin' with the Rancho Seco. Slope!"

Rogers had hardly ceased speaking when the outfit was on the move. There
were eleven men, including Rogers; and they sent their horses leaping
over the crest of the hill nearest them--dividing, as they reached the
level on the other side with seemingly no previous arrangement, into two
groups--one group going northeastward, toward the South Trail, and the
other fading into the space that yawned between it and the point where
the trail to the Star led downward into the big basin.

                    *       *       *       *       *

Haydon, holding hard to the pommel of the saddle, urging his horse along
the trail that led up the valley, looked back whenever he reached a rise,
his eyes searching the space behind him for the dread apparition that he
expected momentarily.

He knew that it would not be long before Morgan and Harlan would emerge
from the ranchhouse to discover that he had escaped; and he knew, too,
that they would suspect that he had gone to the Cache.

He expected they would delay riding after him, however, until they
searched for him in some of the buildings, and that delay, he hoped,
would give him time to reach the Cache.

He was handicapped by his useless arm--for it made riding awkward, and
the numbness was stealing down his side, toward his leg. He paid little
attention to the pain; indeed, he entirely forgot it in his frenzied
eagerness to reach the Cache.

More prominent in his brain at this minute than any other emotion was a
dread of Billy Morgan. He had yielded to terror when Morgan had revealed
his identity; but the terror he had felt then had not been nearly so
paralyzing as that which was now upon him.

His eyes were bulging as he rode; his lips were slavering, and he
shuddered and cringed as he leaned over his horse's mane, urging him to
greater effort--even though there were times when his lurches almost
threw him out of the saddle.

For his previous terror had been somewhat tempered with a doubt of
Morgan's veracity. Even when he had seen Morgan reaching for his pistol
he had felt the doubt--had felt that Morgan was not Morgan at all, but
Woodward, perpetrating a grotesque joke. To be sure, when he had seen
that Morgan really intended to kill him, he had been convinced that the
man was in deadly earnest. It had been then that he had desperately
twisted himself so that Morgan's bullet had not touched a vital spot.

But now his terror had grown; it was a thing that had got into his
soul--for he had had time to meditate over what Morgan's vengeance meant
to him.

It meant that Morgan would kill him, if he caught him; that the life he
treasured would be taken from him; that the magnificent body which he had
always so greatly admired would be shattered and broken. The mental
picture he drew further increased his terror, and he began to mutter
incoherent blasphemies as he raced his horse at a breakneck pace toward
the Cache.

But when he had ridden several miles and knew from the appearance of the
valley that he was nearing the Cache and that he would reach it in
safety, there came a change in him.

He grew calmer; he began to feel a rage that sent the blood racing
through his veins again. He looked back over the trail as often as
formerly, but it was with a new expression--malevolent hatred. And when
he finally reached the entrance to the Cache and rode through it, heading
toward the building in which, he expected, he would find Deveny, the
malevolence in his expression was mingled with triumph and cunning.



CHAPTER XXVII

A DUAL TRAGEDY


Harlan and Morgan had made a thorough search of Haydon's desk in the
latter's office in the ranchhouse, and they had found letters addressed
to Haydon--received at various towns in the vicinity and proving Morgan's
charges against him. And upon several of the letters were names that
provided damaging evidence of the connection of influential men with the
scheme to gain unlawful possession of much land in the basin.

"This cinches it!" declared Morgan as he carefully placed the letters
into a pocket when he and Harlan emerged from the ranchhouse. "I reckon
we've got proof now. An' the governor'll be plumb tickled."

They stepped down from the doorway and turned the corner of the house.
Instantly they noted the disappearance of Haydon's body. But they did not
search among the other buildings for Haydon--as he had expected them to
do. For they saw that his horse was also missing.

Morgan ran for the corral, saying no word, his lips set in grim, vengeful
lines. He had been a fool for not making sure that he had killed Haydon,
but he would not make that mistake again. The gleam in his eyes revealed
that.

Harlan, too, divined what had happened. Purgatory was in the
stable--which was farther from the ranchhouse than the corral. And though
Harlan moved swiftly Morgan was already on his horse and racing toward
the timber when Purgatory emerged from the stable, saddled and bridled.

Harlan noted that Morgan had not stopped to saddle his horse, and that
omission revealed the man's intense desire for haste. Harlan, however,
headed Purgatory into the timber, but he was more than half a mile behind
Morgan when he reached the main trail.

He saw Morgan riding the trail that led up the valley, and he set out
after him, giving the big black horse the rein. He divined that Morgan
suspected Haydon had ridden in that direction; and while Harlan had never
seen the Cache, he had heard the Star men speak of it, and he had noticed
that when setting out for it they had always traveled the trail Morgan
was traveling. Therefore, it was evident that Morgan thought Haydon had
gone to the Cache. In that case he depended upon Deveny to assist him--if
Morgan followed; and Harlan was determined to see the incident through.

He sent Purgatory ahead at a good pace, but he noted soon that Morgan was
increasing the distance between them. He began to urge Purgatory forward,
and gradually the distance between the two riders grew shorter.

Both were traveling rapidly, however, and it seemed to Harlan that they
had not gone more than three or four miles when--watching Morgan closely,
he saw him ride pell-mell into some timber that--apparently--fringed the
front of a cave.

It was some time before Harlan reached the timber, and when he did he
could not immediately discover the spot into which Morgan had ridden.
When he did discover it he rode Purgatory through, and found himself in a
narrow gorge.

He raced Purgatory through the gorge, and out of it to the sloping side
of a little basin.

He saw a house near the center of the basin--and Morgan riding close to
it.

The distance to the house was not great--not more than a quarter of a
mile, it seemed; and Harlan felt some wonder that Morgan--who had been
quite a little in advance of him--had not reached the house sooner. That
mystery was explained to him almost instantly, though, when he saw that
Morgan's horse was walking, going forward with a pronounced limp.
Evidently Morgan had met with an accident.

Harlan was riding across the floor of the little basin, watching Morgan
and wondering at the seeming absence of Deveny's men, when he saw a smoke
streak issue from one of the windows of the house, saw Morgan reel in the
saddle, and slide to the ground.

But before Harlan could reach the spot where Morgan had fallen, the man
staggered to his feet and was running toward the house, swaying as he
went.

Harlan heard a muffled report as he sent Purgatory scampering after
Morgan. He saw Morgan reel again, and he knew someone in the house was
using a rifle.

There was another report as Morgan lurched through an open doorway of the
house. Then Harlan knew Morgan was using his gun, for its roaring crash
mingled with the whiplike crack of a rifle.

The firing had ceased when Harlan slipped off Purgatory at the open door;
and both his guns were out as he leaped over the threshold.

He halted, though, standing rigid, his guns slowly swagging in his hands,
their muzzles drooping.

For on the floor of the room--flat on his back near a corner--was Haydon.
He was dead--there was no doubt of that.

Nor was there any doubt that the bullets Haydon had sent had finished
Morgan. He was lying on his right side, his right arm under him,
extended; the palm of the hand upward, the fingers limply holding the
pistol he had used, some smoke curling lazily from the muzzle.

Harlan knelt beside Morgan, examining him for signs of life. He got up a
little later and stood for some time looking down at the man, thinking of
Barbara. Twice had tragedy cast its sinister shadow over her.



CHAPTER XXVIII

CONVERGING TRAILS


An hour or so later, Harlan, having finished his labors in a clearing at
the edge of the level near the gorge, climbed slowly on Purgatory and
sent him back down the valley trail toward the Star.

From the first his sympathies for Barbara had been deep, beginning on the
evening Lane Morgan had mentioned her in his presence--when the man
seemed to see her in that strange, awesome moment before his death--when
he had seemed to hold out his arms to her. Later, at Lamo, when Harlan
had held the girl in his arms, he felt that at that instant he must have
experienced much the same protective impulse that Morgan would have felt,
had the experience occurred to him. Harlan had been slightly cynical
until that minute; but since then he had known that his rage against the
outlaws was deeply personal.

That rage, though, had centered most heavily upon Deveny. He had hated
Haydon, too--from the first. In the beginning it had been a jealous
hatred, aroused over the conviction that Barbara loved the man. But
later--when he had discovered that Haydon was the mysterious "Chief,"
that he was the real murderer of Lane Morgan, and that behind his
professed love for the girl was meditated trickery--his hatred had become
a passion in which Barbara did not figure.

His hatred for Haydon, though, could not be compared with the passionate
contempt and loathing he felt for Deveny. The man had attempted, in Lamo,
a thing that Harlan had always abhorred, and the memory of that time was
still vivid in Harlan's brain.

Into Harlan's heart as he rode toward the Star flamed that ancient
loathing, paling his face and bringing a gleam to his eyes that had been
in them often of late--a lust for the lives of the men whose evil deeds
and sinister influence had kept Barbara a virtual prisoner at the Rancho
Seco.

He rode the valley trail slowly, his thoughts upon Barbara, his lips
straightening when he thought of how he would have to return to the
Rancho Seco, some day, to tell her of her brother's death. Twice had
tragedy visited her, and again he would be the messenger to bring her the
grim news.

When he reached the Star he rode up to the corral fence and dismounted.
He stood for a long time at the fence, his elbows on one of the rails,
his thoughts dwelling upon Barbara. Pity for her whitened his face, set
his lips in rigid lines.

She had been in danger, but it seemed to him that it would soon be over.
For Haydon would bother the girl no more, and as soon as he could meet
Deveny he would remove another menace to Barbara's life and happiness.

He had no regrets for the men he had killed; they deserved what he had
given them. As he had told Morgan, he had considered himself merely an
instrument of the law of right and justice--which law was based upon the
very principle that governed men in civilized communities.

He was facing south, and he raised his head after a few minutes, for upon
the slight breeze was borne to him the rapid drumming of hoofs. As he
looked up he saw, far out toward the southern edge of the valley, a dust
cloud, moving swiftly toward him.

At first he suspected that the men in the group belonged to Deveny, and
he drew out his pistols, one after the other, and examined them--for he
decided--if Deveny was among the men--to settle for good the question of
power and authority that Haydon had raised.

When the men came closer, though, swooping toward the ranchhouse like
feathers before a hurricane, he saw that Rogers was among them.

Then, as the men came toward him down along the corral fence, Harlan saw
that Rogers' eyes were wide with excitement. And he stood, his face
darkening, as Rogers told him what he had seen, and voiced his
suspicions.

"We're with you, Harlan," declared Rogers, sweeping a hand toward the
men; "an' them other boys which have trailed Deveny, are with you. We're
out to 'get' Deveny if you say the word; and that thief, Haydon, too."

Harlan did not answer. He grinned at the men, though, and at
Rogers--acknowledging his gratitude for their decision to be "with" him;
then he turned, leaped on Purgatory, and sent the big beast thundering
toward the timber that led to the main trail.

Their voices silent, their horses falling quickly into the pace set by
the big black, Rogers and the other men followed.

The other half of Rogers' men, headed by Colver, were several miles
behind Deveny's horsemen when they reached the South Trail. They gained
very little on the other men, though, for Deveny and his men were just
then racing Barbara to the point where the trails converged, having seen
her. But during Deveny's halt at the covert, where he had shot Stroud,
Colver's men gained, and they were not more than two or three miles from
the covert when Deveny's men left it.

From the shelving trail, ever sweeping toward the trail in the valley,
Colver had noted the halt at the covert, though he had not seen Barbara,
nor Stroud. He had seen, of course, that Deveny had not gone to the
Rancho Seco, that for some reason or other he had swerved, taking the
trail up the valley.

Colver was puzzled, but he remembered Rogers' orders, and when he and his
men reached the covert, they halted. They came upon Stroud, lying near
some bushes, and they saw his horse, grazing on the tall grass near by.
They had reached the covert too late to see Barbara's pony; and when they
remounted, after taking a look at Stroud, they caught a glimpse of a lone
horseman racing up the valley in the direction taken by Deveny and his
men.

The lone horseman was Red Linton, though Colver did not know it, for the
South Trail dipped into the basin miles before it emerged to the level at
the point of convergence with the other trail, and Colver had not seen
Linton when he had passed.

Colver and his men fled up the valley, following the trail taken by
Deveny and the lone horseman, and when they had gone two or three miles
they saw a rider coming toward them. They raced toward him, for they saw
he was in trouble; that he had lashed himself to the pommel of the
saddle, and that he was leaning far over it, limp and inert.

Linton was not unconscious, but he was very near it; so near that he
seemed to dream that men were around him and that voices were directed at
him.

Into his mind as he straightened and looked at the men finally came the
conviction that this was not a dream; and after an instant of intense
effort, during which he fixed his gaze on Colver, he recognized the
other.

He laughed, grimly, mockingly:

"Front an' rear--eh?" he said. "You got me, goin' an' comin'. Well, go to
it--I deserve it, for lettin' Barbara out of my sight. If you don't kill
me, Harlan will. But if you guys are _men_, you won't let Deveny----"

"Deveny's got Barbara Morgan?"

This was Colver. Something in his voice straightened Linton further, and
he steadied himself in the saddle and looked fairly at the man.

"Deveny's got her. An' they got me--chasin' 'em. I was headin' back to
the Rancho Seco, to get the T Down boys--all Harlan's friends--to wipe
Deveny out. If you guys are _men_----"

Sheer will could no longer support Linton's failing muscles--and he again
collapsed over the pommel.

For an instant only did Colver hesitate. Then he turned to a lean rider
who bestrode a tall, rangy horse. He spoke sharply to the rider:

"Hit the breeze to the Rancho Seco, an' get them T Down boys. Fan it,
damn you!"

The rider was off with the word, leaping his horse down the trail with
dizzying speed. Then Colver loosed the rope that held Linton to the
saddle, and with the help of the other men lifted the man down and
stretched him in a plot of grass beside the trail, where they worked over
him until they saw, far out on the level toward the Rancho Seco, a number
of horsemen coming, seemingly abreast, as though they were racing, each
man trying his best to outstrip the others.



CHAPTER XXIX

WORLD'S END


Barbara Morgan had fought Deveny until she became exhausted. Thereafter
she lay quiet, breathing fast, yielding to the nameless terror that held
her in its icy clutch.

The appearance of Deveny so soon after the end of the heartbreaking ride
down the trail had brought into her heart a sense of the futility of
resistance--and yet she had resisted, involuntarily, instinctively. Yet
resistance had merely served to increase the exhaustion that had come
upon her.

She had not known--until she lay passive in Deveny's arms--how taut her
nerves had been, nor how the physical ordeal had drained her strength.

She felt the strain, now, but consideration for her body was overwhelmed
by what she saw in Deveny's eyes as she lay watching him.

There were a dozen men with Deveny--she had seen them, counted them when
they had been racing down the shelving trail on the other side of the
valley. And she knew they were following Deveny, for she could hear the
thudding of hoofs behind.

Deveny's big arms were around her; she could feel the rippling of his
muscles as he swayed from side to side, balancing himself in the saddle.
He was not using the reins; he was giving his attention to her, letting
the horse follow his own inclinations.

Yet she noted that the animal held to the trail, that he traveled
steadily, requiring no word from his rider.

Once, after they had ridden some distance up the valley, Barbara heard a
man behind them call Deveny's attention to some horsemen who were riding
the shelving trail that Deveny and his men had taken on their way to the
level; and she heard Deveny laugh.

"Some of the Star gang, I reckon. Mebbe Haydon, goin' to the Rancho Seco,
to see his girl." He grinned down into Barbara's face, his own alight
with a triumph that made a shiver run over her.

Later--only a few minutes, it seemed--she heard a man call to Deveny
again, telling him that a lone rider was "fannin' it" up the valley.

"Looks like that guy, Linton," said the man.

"Two of you drop back and lay for him!" ordered Deveny. "Make it sure!"
he added, after a short pause.

Barbara yielded to a quick horror. She fought with Deveny, trying in vain
to free her arms--which he held tightly to her sides with his own. She
gave it up at last, and lay, looking up into his face, her eyes blazing
with impotent rage and repugnance.

"You mean to kill him?" she charged.

"Sure," he laughed; "there's no one interfering with what's going on
now."

Overcome with nausea over the conviction that Deveny's order meant death
to Red Linton, Barbara lay slack in Deveny's arms for a long time. A
premonitory silence had settled over the valley; she heard the dull thud
of hoofs behind her, regular and swift, the creaking of the saddle
leather as the animal under her loped forward.

There was no other sound. For the men behind her were strangely silent,
and even Deveny seemed to be listening.

After what seemed to be a long interval, she heard a shot, and then
almost instantly, another. She shuddered, closing her eyes, for she knew
they had killed Linton. And she had blamed Linton for guarding her
from--from the very thing that had happened to her. And Linton had given
his life for her!

How long she had her eyes closed she did not know. The time could not
have been more than a few minutes though, for she heard a voice behind
her saying to Deveny:

"They got him."

Then she looked up, to see Deveny grinning at her.

"I reckon that's all," he said. "We're headin' for the Cache--my
hang-out. If you'd have been good over in Lamo, the day that damned
Harlan came, this wouldn't have happened. I'd sent for a parson, an' I
intended to give you a square deal. But now it's different. Then I was
scared of running foul of Haydon--I didn't want to make trouble. But I'm
running my own game now--Haydon and me have agreed to call it quits. Me
not liking the idea of Haydon adopting Harlan."

She stared up at him, her eyes widening.

"You and Haydon were--what do you mean?" she asked, her heart seeming to
be a dead weight in her breast, heavy with suspicion over the dread
significance in his voice and words. She watched him, breathlessly.

"I'm meaning that Haydon and me were running things in the valley--that
we were partners, splitting equal. But I'm playing a lone hand now."

He seemed to enjoy her astonishment--the light in her eyes which showed
that comprehension, freighted with hopelessness, was stealing over her.

He grinned hugely as he watched her face.

"Haydon is the guy we called 'Chief,'" he said, enjoying her further
amazement and noting the sudden paleness that swept over her face. "He's
the guy who killed your father at Sentinel Rock. He was after you,
meaning to make a fool of you. Hurts--does it?" he jeered, when he saw
her eyes glow with a rage that he could understand. "I've heard of that
chain deal--Haydon was telling me. When he shot your father he lost a bit
of chain. Harlan found it and gave it back to him, with you looking on. I
reckon that's why him and Harlan hit it off together so well--Harlan
knowing he killed your father and not telling you about it."

The long shudder that shook the girl betrayed something of the terrible
emotion under which she was laboring; and when she finally opened her
eyes to gaze again into Deveny's, they were filled with a haunting
hopelessness--a complete surrender to the sinister circumstances which
seemed to have surrounded her from the beginning.

"Harlan," she said weakly, as though upon him she had pinned her last
hope; "Harlan has joined you after all--he is against me--too?"

"Him and Haydon are after the Rancho Seco. Harlan's been playing with
Haydon right along."

Barbara said nothing more. She was incapable of coherent thought or of
definite action--or even of knowledge of her surroundings.

For it seemed to her that Deveny had spoken truthfully. She had seen the
incident of the broken chain; she had seen Harlan's hypocritical grin
upon that occasion--how he had seemed to be eager to ingratiate himself
with Haydon.

All were against her--everybody. Everybody, it seemed, but Red Linton.
And they had killed Linton.

She seemed to be drifting off into a place which was peopled with demons
that schemed and planned for her honor and her life; and not one of them
who planned and schemed against her gave the slightest indication of
mercy or manliness. The world became chaotic with swirling objects--then
a blank, aching void into which she drifted, feeling nothing, seeing
nothing.



CHAPTER XXX

THE ULTIMATE TREACHERY


When Barbara regained consciousness she was lying in some long, dusty
grass beside the trail where she seemed to have been thrown, or where she
had fallen. For she was lying on her right side, her right arm doubled
under her, and she felt a pain in her shoulder which must have been where
she had struck when she had fallen.

She twisted around and sat up, bewildered, almost succumbing to the
hideous terror which instantly gripped her when she remembered what had
happened.

Deveny's horse stood near her, nipping the tips of the grass that grew at
her feet. Beyond the animal--a little to her right, and perhaps fifty
feet from her--were other horses, with riders.

As she staggered to her feet she recognized the men who had been with
Deveny. They were on their horses--all facing away from her. Facing
Deveny's men were all the T Down boys--she recognized them instantly.
Pistols glittered in their hands; they seemed to be in the grip of some
strong passion, which wreathed their faces into grim, bitter lines.

Near the T Down men--flanking them--were other men. Among them she saw
faces she knew--Colver, Strom Rogers, and others.

There must have been twenty-five or thirty men, altogether, and they were
all on a little level beside the trail. It seemed to Barbara that they
all appeared to have forgotten her; seemed not to know that she was in
the vicinity.

She saw Deveny standing on the little level. His profile was toward her;
there was a wild, savage glare in his eyes.

Not more than a dozen feet from him was Harlan.

She saw Harlan's face from the side also. There was a grin on his
lips--bitter, mirthless, terrible.

She stood for what seemed to her a long time, watching all of them; her
heart throbbing with a dread heaviness that threatened to choke her; her
body in a state of icy paralysis.

She thought she knew what had happened, for it seemed to her that
everything in the world--all the passions and the desires of
men--centered upon her. She felt that there were two factions--one headed
by Deveny, and the other by Harlan, representing Haydon--and that they
were about to fight for her. The T Down men seemed to be standing with
Harlan--as, of course, they would, since he had sent for them to come to
the Rancho Seco.

Oddly, though, they apparently seemed to pay no attention to her; not one
of them looked at her.

If they were to fight it made no difference to her which faction won, for
her fate would be the same, if she stayed.

She did not know what put the thought into her mind, but as she stood
there watching the men she repeated mentally over and over the words: "If
I stay."

Why should she stay? She answered the question by stealing toward
Deveny's horse. When she reached the animal she paused, glancing
apprehensively at the men, her breathing suspended--hoping, dreading, her
nerves and muscles taut. It seemed they must see her.

Not a man moved as she climbed upon the back of the horse; it seemed to
her as she urged the animal gently and slowly away from the men that they
heard nothing and saw nothing but Harlan and Deveny, and that Harlan and
Deveny saw nothing but each other.

She sent the horse away, walking him for a dozen yards or more, until he
crossed the little level and sank into a shallow depression in the trail.
Still looking back, she saw that none of the men had changed
position--that they seemed to be more intent upon Harlan and Deveny. And
she could hear Harlan's voice, now, low, husky.

She urged the horse into a lope; and when she had ridden perhaps a
hundred yards, the conviction that she would escape grew strong in her.
Once out of the valley she would ride straight to Lamo, to ask Sheriff
Gage to protect her.

She rode faster as she widened the distance that separated her from the
men; and soon the horse was covering the trail rapidly; and she leaned
forward in the saddle, praying that the men might not see her.

She had gone several miles when she noticed a dark object beside the
trail ahead of her. She drew the horse down and approached the spot
cautiously. And when she saw that the object was a man, her thoughts flew
to the shot she had heard, and to Deveny's words:

"Make sure of it."

It _was_ Linton, she saw, as she halted the horse near the object she had
seen. He was lying on his right side, resting his weight on an elbow, as
though trying to rise.

In an instant she was out of the saddle and at his side, raising his
head.

He looked at her, smiled, and said weakly:

"You got away, eh? I reckon they met Harlan. I was hopin' they would. Did
they?"

"Yes," she answered quickly. She had seen that Linton was badly wounded,
and she knew that she must give up hope of getting to Lamo in order to
give him the care he needed.

So without speaking further, though with an effort that required the last
ounce of her strength, she lifted Linton, he helping a little, and led
him toward her horse. Somehow, with Linton doing all he could, she got
him into the saddle, climbed up behind him, and sent the horse toward the
Rancho Seco.

Back at the little level where the men were grouped there was a tension
that seemed to charge the atmosphere with tragedy. Deveny's men sat
silent in their saddles, watching their leader and Harlan with sullen,
savage eyes. The T Down men, facing them, were equally sullen. Guns in
hand, they alertly watched the men who were with Deveny, plainly
determined that there should be no interference from them in the tragedy
that seemed imminent.

Rogers and his men, and the riders who had come with Colver, were also
watching the Deveny group. All of these held weapons, too; and Rogers,
who had dismounted, was standing beside his horse, a rifle resting on the
saddle seat, his cheek snuggling the stock, the muzzle trained on Deveny.

Harlan, Rogers, and the others, racing down the valley, had met Deveny
and his men coming up. And when Deveny had recognized Harlan and the
others he had quickly dismounted, bearing his unconscious burden. Because
he felt that trouble would result from the meeting, Deveny had thrown
Barbara from him.

He had instantly forgotten the girl. For when Harlan came up Deveny saw a
gleam in his eyes that sent his brain to throbbing with those
unmistakable impulses of fear which had seized him the day, in Lamo, when
Harlan had faced him.

There had been a moment of silence when the two groups met; a stiffening
of muscles and the heavy, strained breathing that, in men, tells of
mental preparation for violence, swift and deadly.

It had been Harlan who had prevented concerted action--action that would
have brought about a battle in which all would have figured. His guns
came out before the thought of trouble could definitely form in the
brains of the Deveny men; and he had held them--the men in the saddles,
Deveny standing--until the T Down men, whom he had seen from a distance,
coming toward him, could arrive.

Then, still menacing the Deveny men with weapons, he had dismounted to
face Deveny--where he had been when Barbara Morgan had recovered
consciousness.

And while the girl had been stealing away he had been talking to Deveny,
though loud enough for all of them to hear.

There was about Harlan as this moment a threat that brought awe into the
hearts of Deveny's men--a cold, savage alertness that told them,
unmistakably, that the man's rage was at a pitch where the slightest
movement by any of them would precipitate that action for which, plainly,
Harlan longed.

"So you got Barbara Morgan?" he said as he stood close to Deveny. There
was a taunt in his voice, and an irony that made Deveny squirm with fury.

And yet Deveny fought hard for composure. He could see in Harlan's manner
something akin to what he had seen that day, in Lamo, when Harlan had
baited him. His manner was the same, yet somehow it was not the same.
There was this difference:

In Lamo, Harlan had betrayed the threat of violence that Deveny had felt.
But he had seemed to be composed, saturnine--willing to wait. It had
seemed, then, that he wanted trouble, but he would not force it.

Now, he plainly intended to bring a clash quickly. The determination was
in his eyes, in the set of his head, and in his straight, stiff lips.

He seemed to have forgotten the other men; his gaze was on Deveny with a
boring intensity that sent a chill of stealthy dread over the outlaw.

Deveny had faced many men in whose hearts lurked the lust to kill; he had
shot down men who had faced him with that lust in their eyes--and he knew
the passion when he saw it.

He saw it now, in Harlan's eyes--they were wanton--in them was
concentrated all the hate and contempt that Harlan felt for him. But back
of it all was that iron self-control that Deveny had seen in the man when
he had faced him in Lamo.

Deveny had avoided Harlan since that day. He had known why--and he knew
at this minute. It was because he was afraid of Harlan--he feared him as
a coward fears the death that confronts him. The sensation was
premonitory. Nor was it that. It _had_ been premonitory--it was now a
conviction. In the time, in Lamo, when he had faced Harlan some
prescience had warned him that before him was the man whom the fates had
selected to bring death to him.

He had felt it during all the days of Harlan's presence in the section;
he had felt it, and he had avoided the man. He felt it now, and his
breathing grew fast and difficult--his chest laboring as he shrilled
breath into his lungs.

He knew what was coming; he knew that presently Harlan's passion would
reach the point where action would be imperative; that presently would
come that slow, halting movement of Harlan's hands toward his gun--which
gun? He would witness, with himself as one of the chief actors, the
hesitating movement which had brought fame of a dread kind to the man who
stood before him.

Could he beat Harlan to the "draw?" Could he? That question was dinned
into his ears and into his consciousness by his brain and his heart. He
heard nothing of what was going on around him; he did not hear Harlan's
voice, though he saw the man's lips moving. He did not see any of the men
who stood near, nor did he see his men, sitting in their saddles,
watching him.

He saw nothing but Harlan; felt nothing except the blood that throbbed in
his temples; was conscious of nothing but the question that filled his
heart, his brain, and his soul--could he beat Harlan to the "draw?"

Presently, when he saw, with astonishment, that Harlan was slowly backing
away from him, crouching a little, he divined vaguely that the moment had
come. And now, curiously, he heard Harlan's voice--low, distinct, even.
What an iceberg the man was!

"Haydon's dead," he heard Harlan saying--and he stared at Harlan, finding
it difficult to comprehend. "Lafe Woodward killed him," Harlan went on
"killed him at the Cache. Now get this straight--all of you." It seemed
strange to Deveny that Harlan seemed to be speaking to the men, while
watching him, only.

"Woodward was killed, too. His real name was Bill Morgan. He was Lane
Morgan's son. Bill Morgan was sent here by the governor, to get evidence
against Haydon. He got it. I took it from his pockets when I planted
him--an' it's goin' straight to the governor.

"You guys are through here--" again he seemed to speak to all the men.
"Morgan told me he had some men with the Cache gang. They're to ride out
an' join my boys--the T Down outfit."

Deveny was conscious that several men detached themselves from the group
of riders he had brought with him, and rode to where the T Down men were
standing. Then Harlan spoke again:

"Now, she shapes up like this. If there's any of the Star gang wantin' to
go straight, they can throw in with the T Down boys, too. If there's some
that figure on pullin' their freight out of the valley--an' stayin'
out--they can hit the breeze right now--drivin' that Star herd to
Willow's Wells, sellin' them, an' dividin' the money. Whoever is takin'
up that proposition is startin' right now!"

About half the Star men began to move; heading up the valley. There was a
momentary pause, and then those that were left of Deveny's men moved
uneasily.

"Does that go for us guys too?"

"It's wide open," announced Harlan, cold humor seeming to creep into his
voice. "It's your chance to get out of this deal without gettin' what's
comin' to you."

There was a rush and clatter as Deveny's men joined the men of the Star,
who were already on the move. And then there followed a long silence,
during which Deveny glanced up the valley and saw the men riding away.

He turned again, to face Harlan, with the consciousness that he stood
alone. The T Down men, half of the Star men, and a large proportion of
the Cache men were standing with Harlan. Deveny saw Colver and Rogers
among those who had aligned themselves with Harlan.

No invitation to withdraw had been extended to Deveny. The knowledge
strengthened his conviction that Harlan intended to kill him. And yet,
now, facing Harlan, he knew that he would never take up the slender
thread of chance that was offered him--to draw his gun, kill Harlan and
resume his authority over the men who were left.

The possibility, dangling at the other end of the slender thread of
chance, did not allure him. For he knew he could not draw the pistol at
his hip with Harlan's gaze upon him--that would be suicide.

"Deveny!"

Harlan's voice, snapping with menace roused him, straightened him,
brought an ashen pallor to his face.

"It's your turn, Deveny. You stay here. Flash your gun!"

Here it was--the dreaded moment. Deveny saw the men around him stiffen
rigidly; he heard their slow-drawn breaths. The thought to draw his gun
was strong in him, and he fought hard to force his recreant muscles to do
the will of his mind. For an instant he stood, his right hand poised
above the holster of his pistol, the elbow crooked, ready to straighten.

And then, with the steady, coldly flaming eyes of Harlan upon him,
Harlan's right hand extended slightly, the fingers spread a little as
though he was about to offer his hand to the other. Deveny became aware
that he was doing an astonishing thing. He was raising his right hand!

Already it was at his shoulder. And as he marveled, it went higher,
finally coming to a level with his head, where it stopped. He had
publicly advertised his refusal to settle his differences with Harlan
with the pistol.

"Yellow!"

It was Harlan's voice. "You won't fight an' you won't run. Well, we'll
keep you, savin' you for the governor. I reckon he'll be glad to see
you."

Harlan turned, sheathing his pistol, and began to walk toward his horse,
his back toward Deveny.

Then Deveny acted. His eyes flaming hate, he drew his pistol with a
flashing movement, his face hideous with malignant passion.

He sent one bullet into Harlan's back and two more as Harlan tumbled
forward, sinking to his knees from the shock. But Deveny's two last
bullets went wild, tearing up the grass of the level as the gun loosened
in his hand.

For Rogers' rifle was spitting fire and smoke with venomous rapidity, and
Deveny was sinking, his knees doubling under him, his body shuddering
with the impact of each bullet.



CHAPTER XXXI

PEACE--AND A SUNSET


Red Linton had recovered--there was no doubt of that. For Linton, though
a trifle pale, was vigorous. Vigor was in the look of him as he stood, a
slow grin on his face, beside Barbara Morgan at the entrance of the
_patio_ of the Rancho Seco ranchhouse.

Barbara was sitting on a bench that ranged the front wall of the
building. She was arrayed in a dress of some soft, fluffy material, in
which she made a picture that brought a breathless longing into Linton's
heart--a longing which made him feel strangely tender and sympathetic.

But Barbara was not smiling. There was a wistfulness in her eyes that
made Linton gulp with jealous thoughts that came to him.

"He don't deserve it, the durned scalawag!"

"Deserve what?" questioned Barbara.

"You," muttered Linton, with an embarrassed grin. "Shucks, I wasn't
thinkin' I was talkin' out loud. I'm sure gettin' locoed."

"Who doesn't deserve me?" asked Barbara.

"Harlan!" declared Linton, with a subtle glance at the girl. "He ain't in
no ways fit to be thinkin' serious thoughts about a girl like you."

"Has he been thinking serious thoughts?" Her eyes dropped from Linton's
and the latter grinned widely.

"Thinkin' them! He's been talkin' them. Talked them all the time him an'
me was stretched out in the big room, gettin' over our scratches. That
man is plumb locoed. I couldn't get him to talk nothin' else. When I told
him about the governor sendin' him congratulations, an' offerin' to do
somethin' handsome for him, he says: 'You say she ain't worryin' none
about things? Red, do you think she'd hook up with a guy like me--that's
got a bad reputation?'"

Linton shot a side glance at Barbara and saw a flush steal into her
cheeks. He concealed a broad grin with the palm of his hand and then
said, gruffly:

"I answers him as such a impertinent question ought to be answered. Says
I--'Harlan, you're a damned fool!'--askin' your pardon, ma'am. A girl
like Barbara Morgan ain't goin' to throw herself away on a no-good
outlaw. Not none! Why, ma'am, he's an outlaw at heart as well as by
reputation. He's clean bad--there ain't a bit of good in him. Didn't he
go to Haydon deliberate? An' didn't he keep you in suspense about what
was goin' on--not tellin' you anything until he had to? Shucks!"

"But there was a method in that, Linton," said Barbara; "he told me he
was afraid I'd unconsciously betray him, and then he could not have done
what he did."

Linton grinned again--again concealing the grin.

"You don't mean to say that you believe the cuss done the best he could?"

"I think I do, Linton."

"Shucks. Women is odd that way, ain't they? You ain't tellin' me that you
think he's on the level--that his reputation ain't as bad as some folks
make believe it is, an' that he's _square_?"

"I believe he's square, Linton!" the girl answered, firmly.

Linton was silent for an instant, during which he stood on one foot,
looking westward where the sun was swimming low above the big valley.

"Ma'am," he said lowly, breaking the silence: "I'm damned if I ain't
beginnin' to believe it, myself. There's some things that seem to prove
it.

"First, there's him takin' your part over in Lamo. Then there's him
comin' here with you, knowin' you was alone--an' not botherin' you. Then
he guarded you right steady, not lettin' Haydon or Deveny run in on you.
Then he makes me foreman--which seems to prove that he's got sense. Then
he goes up the valley an' helps your brother bust up the outlaw gang,
riskin' his life a lot.

"An' all the time he knows where your dad hid that gold. But he didn't
touch it until he got over that scratch Deveny give him--or until he
could take you where it was hid an' show you he hadn't touched it. Yes,
ma'am," he added with a hyprocritical grin--which he did not permit the
girl to see--"I'm beginnin' to believe the cuss is on the level."

"Oh, he _is_, Linton!" said Barbara, in a low, earnest voice.

Again there was a silence. Then----

"Do you think he's a pretty good looker, ma'am?"

"I think he is handsome!" Again the girl blushed.

And again Linton grinned. He cleared his throat before he again spoke:

"Well," he drawled; "mebbe I wouldn't go that far. Mostly I don't care
for a handsome man, anyway. I wouldn't say he's ugly, an' I won't say
he's handsome. I'd light on a spot about halfway between them two
extremes. I'd say he ain't a bad looker. That would be about right."

"He _is_ handsome, Linton!"

"Well, likely he is--to a woman. I've heard that there's _been_ women
which thought him a heap good lookin'."

"Where, Linton?" she asked, quickly.

"Why, in Pardo, ma'am. There was a biscuit shooter in a eatin'-house
there that was sure wild about Harlan--she followed him around a heap."

"He didn't have anything to do with her, Linton?" she questioned,
stiffening.

"Shucks! Not him. Women never bothered him none. He always fought shy of
them--until now. He's changed a lot. I don't understand him no more.
Keeps a-moonin' regular about you. I'm gettin' a heap sick of hangin'
around him. Ain't you?"

"No!"

"Well, that's a heap odd, ma'am. I was thinkin' you didn't like him a
heap. Accordin' to that, I reckon you'd be right glad to see him--comin'
home from Pardo--where's he been to have that gold assayed?"

"He ought to be here before dark, Linton. And I shall be glad to see
him."

"Hopin' the gold will assay good, I reckon?"

"Hoping he will come back, safe."

"You don't care about the gold?"

"No."

"Only about him?"

"Yes, Linton," she said, gently.

"Well, that's odd, ma'am," drawled Linton.

"What is?"

"That I feel the same way about the cuss."

She looked keenly at him, saw the dancing, wayward gleam in his eyes, and
gave him a reproachful glance.

"You've been pumping me, Linton," she charged.

"Well," he defended; "he's my friend, ma'am; an' I was sure worried,
thinkin' you wouldn't take him--if he offered himself."

She smiled, wisely.

"He did that long ago, Linton--right after he--well, the day he got up,
after the doctor told him he could."

"That he could offer himself?"

"That he could get up. Linton," she said, severely; "you want to know too
much."

Linton did not answer. He took her by an arm, raised her to her feet, and
turned her face toward the northeast--where a rider came, not more than
two or three miles distant.

Linton left her to stand there, while he made his way into one of the
bunkhouses, where, with an appearance of unconcern that he did not feel,
he watched the coming rider. And when he saw the rider head his horse
straight for the gate of the patio, Linton grinned widely and sought some
of the other men in the cook-house.

The sun was between the two huge mountains at the western end of the big
valley when Harlan dismounted at the _patio_ gate and dropped, tired and
dusty, to the bench upon which Barbara sat. Had Linton seen what occurred
when Harlan dismounted he would have ceased to speculate over certain
phases of the relations between the man and the girl.

Barbara did not seem to mind the dust on Harlan's sleeve, nor did she
feel it on his shoulder where her head was nestling.

For both were looking out into the big valley, where the sun was sinking
with a splendor that reminded them of another day.

"The gold isn't worth mining," said Harlan, gently. "The assayer used
names that didn't mean anything to me, but he told me enough in plain
talk, to prove that your dad wasted his time."

"I'm satisfied," said the girl.

"Me too," smiled Harlan. "There's somethin' better than gold."

"It's peace--and happiness," said Barbara, gently.

"An' a girl," smiled Harlan.

"And a man," declared Barbara stoutly.

"Well, then," he conceded, "we won't quarrel. We'll say it's both."

And they sat, saying little, watching the colors of the sunset flame over
the mighty valley--stealing over the vast, silent space that spread
between the two mountain ranges. And the big valley smiled back at them,
softening the sadness that dwelt in the heart of the girl, and holding
out to both of them a promise of good to come--telling them of a mystery
that had been solved, and of a menace removed.





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